What You Should Think About the War in Iraq

December 2, 2007

“He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.”

–Persian proverb

I recall being mystified at the enormous disconnect between reality and “journalism” as I watched a little Fox News Channel almost every day from the emergence of the Clinton-Lewinsky story up through the end of the impeachment effort. Yet bemused puzzlement gave way to alarm as I also made a point of keeping tabs on that network during the rush into the Iraq war. While they spoke in sure tones of Saddam Hussein’s advanced nuclear weapons program, I saw qualified unfettered weapons inspectors concluding no such program existed. While they predicted a quick clean military operation that might cost $1-2 billion, I foresaw a protracted bloodbath.

More disturbing still, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC all made the same sort of mistakes FNC did. The “mainstream media” may not have been quite so willing to celebrate bloodlust. Yet every network on that list gave airtime to transparent partisan shills spouting extreme misinformation. Every network on that list presented anchors giving the voice of authority to false narratives generated by White House propagandists. If ever there was a time to rigorously check the facts in a story, that was it. Be it fear of public backlash or lack of access to government officials or parent corporations losing government business, something drove each of those media organizations to take an active role in a campaign of national misdirection.

In fairness, actual public officials were not quite so brazen as political operatives working the media. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed downright circumspect by comparison when he predicted a little complexity in the operation along with a total price tag that might run as high as $50 billion. Yet he joined the chorus of deception when it came to that “the Iraqi people will greet our soldiers with flowers and candy in the street” forecast. Even with thoughtful planning and minimal collateral damage, such an expectation was naïve. Blind faith in the certainty of such an outcome may explain why planning was so thoughtless and the invasion itself generated so many civilian deaths.

Like voting for George W. Bush in 2000, using overwhelming military force to accomplish regime change in Iraq may be regarded as a well-intentioned mistake. Real geopolitical or historical savvy would be required to see the folly of a brute force approach rather than (as was actually done in Afghanistan) working with indigenous people to help them achieve liberty with dignity and autonomy. On the other hand, by 2004 it seemed that outright idiocy was required to overlook the dangers of continuity of Iraq policy as well as the Presidency defined by it.

Though I am not aware of any loyal Bushies admitting to it, perhaps the underlying thinking was that a full scale invasion was required to secure control of Iraqi oil. Yet even if the policy was shaped by thoughts of a resource grab, it was not framed or implemented competently. Forces on the ground were given orders to leave military supply depots unsecured in order to provide immediate protection for the oil fields. What sort of thinking could possibly lead planners to believe forces hostile to America could do less harm with explosives stockpiles than with oil wells?

People with genuine respect for the lives of coalition soldiers and/or the lives of Iraqi civilians would surely have surely recognized problems and pushed for new ideas, perhaps even new leadership, at this point. Rather than accept Secretary Rumsfeld’s initial offer of resignation, the sitting President prioritized saving face over saving lives. The fall of Baghdad was celebrated and already marginalized critics were “put in their place” by jubilant (though also ignorant or dishonest) public figures. Up went the Coalition Provisional Authority; out went every cop, bureaucrat, utility worker, and teacher affiliated with the Ba’th Party; and some truly idiotic thinking about the importance of limited government was put to the test.

Rather than give Iraqi people genuine freedom along with encouragement and support to forge their own institutions of popular rule, a long list of mandates was imposed. At times it seemed as if Rush Limbaugh himself was dictating the shape of things to come in Iraq. For example, American authorities insisted that the new Iraqi government should accept an absolute limit of 15% on income tax. After all, we wouldn’t want the new Iraqi government doing crazy things like providing quality health care to countless collateral casualties or rebuilding devastated infrastructure at a brisk pace.

Most problematic of all was the American insistence that Iraqi oil resources be placed under private ownership. This went far beyond anarcho-capitalist ideology and into the realm of outright kleptocracy. Exxon did not generate this natural bounty. Chevron executives have no ancestral claim to Iraqi sands. Even from an American perspective, there was no justice in taking such a valuable resource out of the hands of the Iraqi people in order to let foreign corporations gorge themselves on oil profits. Imagine how that American directive registered in the minds of the Iraqi people, not merely in desperate need of that revenue, but also entitled to it by any reasonable standard.

Still, what is the plight of an entire nation when there is a Presidential face to be saved? Even as some understanding of Iraq’s internal politics slowly penetrated the thick skulls of relevant American officials, there was no acknowledgement of any legitimate grievances the Iraqi people might feel toward an occupying power. Of course simply maintaining an occupation is itself cause for concern. What American would be comfortable living under martial law imposed by a distant military power? How many of our citizens would stop at nothing to strike back against the invaders? Is it any surprise that in 2004 the most popular video rental in Iraq was Red Dawn?

In light of all this, what else could the White House do but stay the course? Apparently, they did eventually come to consider an alternative — the troop surge. In a land where military occupation is the primary fuel for the fires of anarchy and terrorism, more intense military occupation is the way to go?!? Perhaps today’s war planners are hopeful that insurgents and Al Qaeda affiliates will eventually lose interest in the causes for which they are willing to die. All that can be ascertained clearly from this policy is that there is no amount of blood and treasure that would cause George W. Bush to acknowledge the unthinkable — he might actually have committed a major blunder that changed the course of history.

In the end this disastrous reality may be a natural outgrowth of late 20th century conservative political thought. Again and again, errors are met with denials or evasions rather than recognition and change. It seems as if some people believe that strong enough faith in that which is untrue can reshape reality to make trickle down economics work or environmental damage inconsequential or even brutal warmongering constructive. Talk alone, growing less and less reasonable even as it grows more and more vehement, is employed as an alternative to adaptation in the face of serious problems.

Even if one grants that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who had to go, it remains the case that the hardships of Iraq today are not caused by any threat that might be overcome with superior military might. Political problems require a political solution. It is inexcusable that the day after Saddam Hussein was pulled from his spider hole was not a day in which sweeping demilitarization of U.S.-Iraq policy was announced.

There is much work for diplomats, and perhaps spies as well, to perform inside Iraq. Perpetuating the bloodbath over there has added enormous difficulties to the challenges already inherent in the Iraqi situation. A new approach, in which officials make a good faith effort to face facts, then a similar effort to be honest with the public in both Iraq and the United States, would be a wonderful step in the right direction. Substantial reduction in the profile as well as the scope of the occupation would also be a form of progress. Instead policy seems oriented entirely around delaying the point at which error must be conceded. To me, it seems like this is procrastination of downright murderous proportions.


What You Should Think About Oil Prices

November 18, 2007

“Time destroys the speculation of men, but it confirms nature.”

–Cicero

When expressing hostility toward the Carter administration, critics often fault the former President for poor economic conditions, with particular emphasis on high oil prices, that he left behind after losing the 1980 election. Since most of this hostility comes from devout political partisans, it is hard to imagine how they will rationalize a strikingly parallel scenario unfolding as the second Bush administration comes to an end.

At least in Jimmy Carter’s case, the machinations of OPEC and a largely unjustified surge of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East could be blamed. Today, supply throttling by OPEC is virtually a non-issue, and there is the matter of tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians (among other things) to justify strong anti-American sentiment throughout much of the Middle East. Even so, this phenomenon clearly has its roots in something much bigger than inept American leadership transforming a long-standing culture clash into a seething pit of perpetual warfare.

Clearly there are many factors driving the price of oil to new heights. Perhaps foremost among them are concerns about the prospect of a war between the U.S. and Iran. It is no secret that the same folks who brought us the current Iraq policy are drooling at the prospect of violence against Iran. The problem is that, while the world community united in the 1990s to ban Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction, Iran is a sovereign nation that has not violated the territory of any other nation since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s (itself a direct result of Saddam Hussein’s attempted invasion of Iran.)

The United Nations Security Council may be able to agree that Iranian nuclear weapons are a bad idea in principle, but in practice taking action against such a program involves setting a dangerous new precedent in which military aggression by powerful nations is permitted for no reason other than the crudest possible approach to preventing nuclear proliferation. The idea that the government of Iran would provide nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations is (as with much of the public rationale for war in Iraq) bogus on its face. Yet that misinformation is, in some circles, a more popular idea than the notion that military aggression to destroy foreign nuclear facilities would push future nuclear research so deeply into realms of secrecy that it would become much more vulnerable to abuse by madmen.

Yet the price of oil is as much influenced by Iranian leverage as American belligerence. Iran controls a great deal of coastline along the Persian Gulf. A hostile Iran has a range of options including rocket attacks on outbound oil tankers and rendering the Strait of Hormuz extremely perilous to navigate. Among other things, such an action would put a serious restriction on Iraq’s already troubled capacity to get oil to consumers abroad. Whether the U.S. backs off on pressures to let American corporations control Iraq’s most valuable natural resource or those pressures somehow wind up producing results, none of it will matter if the oil cannot be floated safely to markets abroad.

What all this means is that every time the President and his associates say something profoundly ignorant about World War III, they also say something that is certain to intensify the speculation driving up oil prices at present. This is certainly a key consideration — the current price of oil is as much a reflection of investors’ willingness to bet on even more extreme instability in the Middle East as it has anything to do with supply and demand. The more opportunists see a chance to make a fast buck by speculating on further increases in the price of oil, the more that price will continue to climb without regard for underlying realities.

Of course, the underlying realities are no cause to dance a jig. Decades of vigorous consumption have put an end to most of the “low hanging fruit” in petroleum economics. The world’s reserves are still enormous, but they are increasingly remote and increasingly difficult to process into useful fuel. These complications of supply are paired with increasing demand. The United States under President Bush has made a habit of forfeiting opportunities to engage with China and other rapidly growing economies in pursuit of global accords that might conserve resources or hasten the rise of alternative energy enterprises.

This means that there are real fundamentals driving oil prices higher. This also happens in the context of real fundamentals driving the value of the dollar lower. Years of poor economic stewardship and even poorer foreign policy have changed financial realities within the United states while radically transforming public perceptions abroad. Once unquestioned in its reliability, the greenback is no longer the Old Faithful of international currencies. Toothless government oversight of American capital markets (with mortgage debt resale being the tip of the proverbial iceberg) shakes confidence on one level while years of nonsensical proclamations and actions from the White House rattle a different set of analysts.

A view I find myself on the fence about is that the war in Iraq was really all about the petrodollar. Equal parts sensible analysis and kooky conspiracy theory, it holds that the real reason for all that violence was that Saddam Hussein was on the brink of orchestrating a Middle Eastern oil market that pegged prices to euros rather than dollars. There is much more evidence the Iraqi regime had such a plan in the works than there ever was evidence that they were developing weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, wouldn’t launching a profoundly ill-advised war do at least as much damage to the world’s faith in American stability as any new commodities exchange ever could?

Fortunately, there are many factors that could bring the price of oil down, or at least seriously restrain its ascent. If saner heads prevail before a U.S. attack on Iran occurs, speculation based on the likelihood of that conflict will have been in error. Astute observers of world events are also suggesting that China may go green of its own volition — the waking dragon may simply skip a filthy phase of industrial development and strive for a leadership position in the realm of economic sustainability. Then there is also the prospect that, one way or another, chaos in Iraq will subside and Iraqi oil fields will produce a noteworthy surge in supply.

As with so many other geopolitical issues, the price of oil is clearly influenced by a range of complex factors. Yet for years now, conventional wisdom among speculative investors has held that “the smart money” is on increases. It is fair to question if the latest wave of increases would have happened at all if not for the scandalous losses and shameless deceptions major American financial institutions have sustained from abuse of an underregulated capital markets. If the Bush administration is able to go forward with aspirations of unilateral military aggression against Iran, then I believe the sky is the limit on the price of oil.

Yet in the absence of such a disaster, it seems increasingly likely that this conventional wisdom is a suckers’ bet. In spite of all the valid pressures pushing the price of oil upward, rampant speculation means that this price is overdue for a serious correction. Even if the coming winter is harsh in New England or OPEC should decide to play their strong hand with deliberate slowness, tremendous pessimism is already factored into the current price. The world would have to become screwed up in some additional, severe, and unexpected way for those soaring numbers to continue such a steep climb.


What You Should Think About the United Nations

November 17, 2007

“Negotiation in the classic diplomatic sense assumes parties more anxious to agree than to disagree.”

–Dean Acheson

There is a certain segment of the American public afflicted with strong negative feelings regarding the United Nations. Certainly it is not a perfect institution. Yet when one looks at its purpose and the context in which it operates, blanket hatred of the UN seems like a downright bizarre attitude to adopt. In fact, the general public of the United States sees the UN as a positive force bound by duty to do good in the world.

Yet there is a portion of the public as sure to feel their hearts race with hostility on hearing the phrase “United Nations” as Pavlov’s dogs would be to slobber at a particular light cue. In this case the conditioning is not a matter of being fed in conjunction with the cue. Rather the response in stimulated by the perverse satisfaction of embracing a bogus political orthodoxy. The organization had yet to spend a full decade in its present headquarters when a downright nutty group started rabble-rousing to promote American withdrawal from the strongest global organization dedicated to peaceful international relations.

A free society certainly can accommodate small numbers of survivalist storytellers dedicated to the hobbies of hoarding supplies and sitting around campfires swapping tales of big guvment’s evils. Alas, extremes of personal irresponsibility amongst media tycoons and people emulating journalists elevated the narratives of this fringe to a level where they influence the thinking of millions of American citizens. “Alas,” is an appropriate sentiment here, because a large number of those so misinformed are inclined to vote.

This is particularly problematic when the nation is divided over some sort of military misadventure. The domino theory was ridiculous on its face. If you see the United States as a society that honors traditions of personal liberty and will not yield to foreign oppression, then you have a solid basis for understanding that events in Viet Nam did not pose a real threat to American national security. Yet the sense of that threat motivated all manner of people to justify violence so extreme and remote. By word and deed they seemed unaware of just how much less fragile our nation actually is than such fears imply.

Today we also hear strains of, “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Come to think of it, we hear precisely that language today. To be fair, Al Qaeda has actually attacked Americans on American soil. On the other hand, Al Qaeda was a ragtag militia of unpopular extremists in 2000. By October of 2001, they had become one of the most despised organizations on Earth. Little by little, their reputation in certain parts of the world has risen. More precipitously, the reputation of the United States government has fallen in many of those same parts of the world.

There are many aspects to study in this phenomenon. One crucial facet involves understanding American thinking regarding the United Nations. When it came time to take action against Afghanistan, there was hardly an unsupportive voice in the room. Whatever delegation might have represented the outgoing regime in Afghanistan, the General Assembly did nothing to protest what the world saw as a legitimate action taken by the United States in the aftermath of a surprise attack. By December of 2001, the UN had already put together a plan and made significant contributions in multiple areas of promoting stability in occupied Afghanistan.

All seemed well with U.S.-UN relations up until the foundations were being laid for the attack on Iraq. It would not be long before the quest for international validation would give way to an effort to invalidate the voices of old allies, never mind the United Nations itself. It began with some foot-dragging on weapons inspections. Aside from a scrap of paper in some obscure German intelligence file and obvious misinformation provided by an Iraqi defector notorious for his eagerness to provide his handlers with sensational information, no reason existed to believe Saddam Hussein was on the verge of creating any mushroom clouds.

In fairness, there was a time when Saddam Hussein had pursued some exotic weapons programs. So long as he deployed them against Iranian targets, the United States was not shy about supporting the tyrant’s use of chemical weapons. It was a fact that he tried to build a ridiculously large artillery piece, and he had long been fascinated with powerful weapons. Yet it was also a fact that he had a narcissistic personality coupled with a significant amount of real political savvy. He may have valued firepower, but one thing he valued orders of magnitude more was his own neck.

The long and bloody process of slipping a noose around that neck faced derailment when military deployments by the U.S. convinced Hussein to give UN weapons inspectors unfettered access to the whole of Iraq. With trained professionals snooping in all the right places (not to mention U.S. satellites tracking every suspicious movement along with a large amount of ordinary traffic in Iraq) it was only a matter of time before the truth got out. As it happened, the truth was that Iraq was not wasting scarce resources on counterproductive efforts to break the UN-imposed ban on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Some have argued that White House officials were so bereft of geopolitical acumen that they truly believed Saddam Hussein was supporting forbidden weapons programs. Doubt may be cast on this view by the speed and ferocity of the media campaign to discredit the United Nations. From the most predictable of cheap shots (“doesn’t Hans Blix look a lot like Mr. Magoo?”) to sweeping slander positioned neatly over kernels of truth (“doesn’t corruption in the Oil for Food Programme create a conflict of interest?”) these efforts were a veritable symphony of that dark art practiced by Messrs. Ailes and Rove.

French fries became “freedom fries” for a time, and eventually our nation would extend a much bigger middle finger to the international community by appointing John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. In doing so our leaders (and their supporters) display a grasp of friendship just as warped as their grasp of prewar Iraq. Today some of these same Americans so hostile to the United Nations go so far as to say out loud, “if only someone was around to tell us this war was a bad idea before we got into it.” Adding a lousy grip on recent history to other tenuous grasps, they fail to recognize that traditional allies speaking out against The Coalition of the Willing were concerned friends willing to brave unmistakable pettiness from American political leaders in order to do what good friends do — offer words of warning to dissuade the pursuit of an obviously disastrous plan.

Yet pursue that plan is precisely what our nation did. Now that the United Nations is pulling climate change to the top of its own agenda, it is only natural that the same American voices assailing them in the past will do so in the near future. As it happens, the individuals and institutions at the heart of misinformation about the Iraqi threat to national security are also major providers of misinformation about the relationship between industrial emissions and global warming.

Given the choice between remaining devoted to pundits consistently (if not also hysterically) wrong about the great issues of our times or looking elsewhere for guidance, a substantial segment of the American population will stay the course, however wrong it may be. To be sure, the UN is not above all criticism. Yet can inadequate action in Darfur or corruption in prewar Baghdad really justify ignoring the facts about all the tremendous good accomplished by dozens of UN organizations gathering data, distributing humanitarian aid, and working to spread peace across the globe? If you have a passionate commitment to denying humanity’s role in ongoing climate change, ignoring the facts is just one of the side effects of the anger you are likely to feel on hearing or seeing the phrase “United Nations.”


What You Should Think About State Secrets

October 16, 2007

“Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

–Edward Teller

It has recently come to light that an inventory of corruption in Nouri Al-Maliki’s regime was kept from public scrutiny because it was classified as an American state secret. It seems rarely a month goes by that there is not some news of a bizarre application of official secrecy by White House officials. After all, what possible purpose could this assessment serve if it was not intended to inform decisions related to our nation’s Iraq policy?

The pattern of secrecy practiced by the current administration supports a common criticism of their methods. It would seem they believe national discussions of Iraq policy have no place in national decisions about Iraq policy. In fact, the word “Iraq” could be struck from the previous sentence without rendering it untrue. From requiring audience members at campaign events sign oaths of political loyalty to banning protests anywhere near a location the President might catch sight of them, this administration seems to have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude about political dissent.

Dragging such an attitude into the loftiest halls of power is directly at odds with the traditions, and functional mechanisms, of democracy itself. In instances where dissent rests on falsehoods and misunderstandings, confronting it improves the quality of public information and increases support for legitimate policies. In instances where dissent derives from insightful critique, acknowledging that critique and adapting policy to the truths it contains will produce better results. Either way, the quality of national leadership suffers to the degree the existence of dissent is denied.

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once wrote of secrecy, “through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” Countless follies have emerged from business managers applying Sun Tzu’s teachings without regard for the enormous differences between armies of slave-conscripts engaged in ancient warfare and workforces of free citizens engaged in economic productivity. I have no idea to what extent the Bush-Cheney team are students of Sun Tzu. Yet it would seem that they take this approach to secrecy into the realm of political debate.

A lesson learned too late, if it has been learned at all by White House insiders, is that there are real differences between methods that are effective in the short term and methods that produce sustainable success. At its simplest level this is an obvious lesson. Armed robbery is an effective way to get money. Yet it is no way to make a steady living. Destroying the reputations of political opponents is an effective way to win elections. Yet it is no substitute for leadership driven by good ideas along with clear communication that enables the public to understand the goodness of those ideas.

It should be no secret that authoritarian leadership rests uneasily on the backs of a population inclined to believe their homeland is governed by and for its people. As early as the transition from our second to our third President, this had been established. John Adams wielded the powers of his office in one blatant political maneuver after another. Thomas Jefferson was able to unseat the incumbent in no small part because of widespread concern that power had been abused.

A cynic might argue that there would have been a second term for our second President if only he had followed through on ambitions of a war against revolutionary France. A groundswell of public support appears to be a primal response to warfare. As it happened, more people felt threatened by authoritarian action menacing American civil liberties than French naval actions menacing American shipping. The end result was the empowerment of a liberal thinker who did much to expand the scope of the federal government, both institutionally and via the Louisiana Purchase.

A cynic might also argue that a state of perpetual warfare in Iraq provided a political form of job security. It seems an unreasonable assertion to argue that any President would wreak so much havoc for purely political reasons. No doubt the architects of existing Iraq policy were driven by a complex mixture of motives that varied from person to person. As hindsight now reveals even to them, mistakes were made in the planning and implementation of the initiative to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Yet it is not as if the foresight to avoid these mistakes was missing from the entire American population. Credible weapons inspection experts recognized that prewar Iraq had become largely compliant with UN mandates. Credible military experts recognized that a large occupying force would be required to maintain order in the aftermath of an invasion. A wide range of credible voices recognized that a jubilant reception and instant harmony would not greet an army of foreigners on Iraqi soil. It seems as if much more effort was made to undermine the credibility of public figures expressing such views than was made to deal with potential problems at the heart of their concerns.

Terrorists attacking America and/or our allies certainly are enemies of the state. Insurgents intent on killing American personnel may reasonably be considered enemies. However, there is nothing reasonable at all about regarding political critics or even rival politicians as enemies of the state. For the most part, keeping sources and methods of intelligence gathering secret will give us an advantage over our enemies. In appropriate contexts, keeping the deployment and capabilities of military assets secret can also provide such an advantage. By contrast, there is no advantage to be gained through distorting public debate about the merits of major national objectives by concealing crucial relevant information.

It is lamentable yet understandable that there will always be some fringe of hotheads intent on characterizing the party out of power as “the enemy.” A mind both volatile and simple does not easily grasp concepts like friendly competition or loyal opposition. What is harder to understand is how this dangerous mode of thought should come to shape the work product of the executive branch. Do they desire an end to public debate about national priorities? Do they believe suppressing discussion of potential problems will alter reality to insure no actual problems occur?

From expanding domestic surveillance to conducting extraordinary renditions to reshaping interrogation policies to so many other bold initiatives undertaken by this administration, the quality of public information has been seriously degraded by sweeping exercise of the power to classify information a state secret. Has our enemy so succeeded in terrorizing us that all these national discussions must be silenced for fear of forfeiting a strategic advantage? Is it really plausible that any campaign of terrorist attacks could deprive our society of more than our leaders willingly sacrifice to the War on Terror as an institution?

Clearly a matter like the extent of corruption in the present Iraqi government has a crucial role to play in the ongoing national debate about Iraq policy. It may be fair to argue that a comprehensive report of this nature should remain classified in part, since it may contain plenty of innuendo along with real evidence. Yet to keep the real evidence classified as a state secret too — that leaves no doubt this administration wishes to suppress informed and honest debate about the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations.

It would be wrong to claim this pattern of behavior establishes George W. Bush as the real enemy of our nation. Yet it is not at all wrong to conclude that his administration regularly makes a mistake similar in form. Millions of loyal American dissenters should never be treated as enemies against which the need to gain advantage justifies exploiting the power of state secrecy.

Civic discourse is degraded to the degree participants sink to that level. Negative emotions can draw well-intentioned citizens into that trap, prompting even more politics of personal destruction. Yet, if you really think about it, demanding the best available information to inform public discussion of national priorities is the right response to this problem of pathologically secretive governance.


What You Should Think About Patriotism

October 14, 2007

“There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.

–J. William Fulbright

Well before terrorists transformed the New York City skyline, America’s loudest political conservatives made no secret of beliefs that their kind had a monopoly on patriotism. With a shocking national trauma came much greater zeal in these assertions of patriotic supremacy. The sense in those claims has always been elusive. On an obvious level, confusing ideological conviction with national loyalty is problematic. Yet there are much more subtle and insidious problems with this phenomenon as well.

A public stirred by strong emotions may be so moved as to accept arguments that it is innately patriotic to agree with national leaders. The powers that be are presumed right without any regard for the particulars of their positions and actions. This creates a situation where no distortion of fact nor abuse of power is subjected to adequate public scrutiny. The greatest virtue, and the greatest strength, of popular rule is discarded in favor of a paradigm that conflates a nation with its present regime.

Clear understanding can come through direct experience. Hermann Göring lived long enough after the fall of the Third Reich to share what understanding could be gleaned from his role in history. During the Nuremburg Trials, psychologist Gustave Gilbert was able to engage the former Luftwaffe chief in extensive frank conversations. In one exchange, Gilbert seemed confident that democracy would prevent any American President from dragging the nation into acts of imperialist aggression. Göring disputed the notion that popular rule could restrain such belligerence, “all you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

At the very least, wars in Viet Nam and Iraq validate that insight from a doomed Nazi aviator. The rationale for waging full scale war in each instance was simply not credible. False narratives crafted by White House media experts generated public support for each misadventure. Deliberately misleading language or even outright lies were not subject to sufficient public scrutiny. Warnings of dire threats from remote corners of the world were at odds with verifiable facts. Still fears swept over our nation. Promises of a swift military campaign paving the way for a rosy future ranged from implausible to absurd. Yet they were passed along by esteemed journalists as if they were the result of sound informed analysis.

Years enough have passed that the hindsight on Viet Nam is nearly universal. The domino theory characterized capitalism and democracy as fragile flowers that would certainly be crushed by the indomitable power of communism and fascism unless vigorous military action was taken. Nonsense it may be, but it was a foreign policy doctrine that spawned all manner of affirming editorials and even scholarly works of support. It was just one among a legion of lies that only brought America to war because sound skepticism was denounced as anti-American sentiment.

Just as the Soviet Union was real, so is Al Qaeda. Just as Viet Nam was no stepping stone to Kansas, the road to terrorizing the U.S. homeland did not run through Iraq. That past tense is appropriate, because today the many thousands of Iraqi widowers and orphans know the deepest of miseries, all courtesy of Uncle Sam’s bullets and bombs. It is reasonable to think that a small portion of these tragic victims should become consumed by hate, willing to sacrifice themselves as tools of mayhem. There can be no doubt that today Iraq is home to many terrorists dedicated to making Americans suffer.

Yet, as with the domino theory, arguments that prewar Iraq posed a serious threat to U.S. national security were bogus on their face. After all, Al Qaeda’s foremost priority was to eliminate secular governance throughout the Middle East. Saddam Hussein presided over one of the strongest secular governments in the region. Christians, agnostics, and even atheists were all protected under his regime. He was a brutal tyrant, but in that regard he was one of many. Some others continue to enjoy the active support of America’s present administration.

It was reasonable to assert that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. On the other hand, “he has to go” was the peak on a mountain of nonsense that would have collapsed if only a healthy measure of skepticism had been applied. As with Viet Nam, the call to make war against a non-threat was infused with both great urgency and absurd optimism. Pundits supporting the aggression predicted a total price tag of one or two billion dollars, likely to be repaid within a year or two by a gratefully liberated Iraq. Anyone who disputed that American troops could expect spontaneous gifts of flowers and candy from Iraqi civilians was ridiculed as anti-American and ill-informed.

Misguided appeals to patriotism blinded the nation to the realities of pending disaster. Thousands of our own soldiers have joined tens of thousands of slaughtered Iraqis in paying the ultimate price for this war. Yet it has done much more to degrade conditions in Iraq than to improve them. Hopefully one day that territory will be a better place to live than it was under Hussein’s Baathist regime. Presently the reverse is unmistakably true. As for the two billion dollar price tag — we should be so lucky that a week passes without spending that much on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson never said or wrote, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet history does reveal that there are instances where dissent against leadership provides a service to country while support of leadership constitutes a disservice. The American Revolution took place to give free people a chance to live in a society where the head of state wields limited power and is not regarded as a personal embodiment of the nation itself. Strains of imperialist monarchy return whenever an American President or his supporters use patriotism as a shield against reasonable critiques of flawed public policy or inaccurate public information.

Supporting a President does not make you a good American. Opposing a President does not make you a good American. Making your best effort to become informed about relevant issues, then expressing your earnest opinion without regard for its relationship to any President’s agenda — now those are the deeds of a good American. Leaders, the great as well as the terrible, will come and go. The same is true of policies. So long as the nation endures, service to it demands conscientious honesty. To do less, be it out of fear or hatred or even something as simple as a desire to conform, is to fail profoundly as an American patriot.


What You Should Think About Saddam Hussein

October 3, 2007

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

–Osama bin Laden
(in a 1998 fatwa, predicting the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

The executive branch, backed by overwhelming legislative majorities, rushed this nation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time, American media utterly failed in fulfilling a civic duty to keep the public informed. There was no shortage of content addressing the issue. Alas, there was a near total failure to let that content be shaped by findings of fact. Wild speculation was presented as undisputed truth. Even obvious deceptions were presented as one of two equally valid opinions.

Unprovoked military aggression seemed insane to much of the rest of the world. Nations eager to provide strong support for operations in Afghanistan were openly critical of the effort to invade Iraq. The policy only seemed sane to the American public because of a crucial distortion where traditional journalism collapsed under the weight of “balance” defined by equal attention to hawk rhetoric and dove rhetoric. From shady sources to implausible assertions to outright lies, nothing was defined as out of bounds in some sort of perverse game to generate public support for a White House wet dream.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I have no idea what inspires George W. Bush’s nocturnal emissions. However, I do know that the motivation for war could not have been based on genuine concern about the “mushroom cloud” scenario. This is not a gut impulse or even a close call, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn from plenty of solid givens the politically astute ought to have already known.

Perhaps foremost among these givens was the nature of Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant. He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin, which is every bit as evil as adopting Adolf Hitler as a role model. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. Yet did he have to go? Why him and not any of a dozen other tyrants? I certainly cannot defend tyranny, but Iraq should be near the bottom of a 2002 cost-benefit analysis conducted by anyone intent on picking places where liberty might be achieved through forced regime change.

The administration could plead incompetence by conceding something like “irrational exuberance” when it came to this extremely bloody pet project. Yet if there was an earnest desire to spread liberty, and it was merely misdirected by inept planning, then why provide generous financial support to the secret service of Uzbekistan? A totalitarian regime uninhibited in the use of medieval torture techniques, including executions by means of boiling oil, hardly seems like an ideal partner in global democratization efforts. If that alliance, as with kowtowing to Saudi royalty, is required by realpolitik; then how credible was this idealism regarding the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq?

It is true that Saddam Hussein was enamored with weapons of mass destruction. The architects of this war understood that point from historic deployments. A cynic would say that American consultants assisting with chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Pentagon analysts to study those weapons without creating the diplomatic backlash that would result if American forces actually conducted the gassings. I would not go that far, but there is no denying that hostility toward Iran caused our nation to support battlefield utilization of chemical weapons that we ought to have harshly condemned.

When the tyrant turned the poison on his own people, it was no longer possible to remain so supportive without losing face on the world stage. It would not be until the invasion of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein would become known as an enemy of the United States. Still, a prior strong working relationship was undermined by the atrocity at Halabja.

Of course, there was much more to this man’s personality than his fascination with horrific weaponry. Any informed and competent analyst intent on honest work product would have noted that, above all else, Saddam Hussein was a survivor. Many public figures in the Middle East have good reason to fear assassins, but only Hussein went to such extraordinary lengths to deal with that situation. He maintained a substantial corp of body doubles, all selected for a natural resemblance, then carved by expert plastic surgeons to better resemble their security-conscious employer. That is just one example of the many elaborate schemes actually implemented to insure his survival in time of trouble.

Hindsight seems to validate so much criticism of the war in Iraq. Yet it was never invalid as foresight. We know now from taxicab tales and the infamous “spider hole” that Saddam Hussein was indeed a self-preservationist of the first order. We knew that going into the war for all manner of reasons, including his willingness to let weapons inspectors travel unfettered throughout Iraq.

Credible allegations held that Western spies infiltrated UN weapons inspection teams. Then there is the affront to sovereignty — how many other nations would let foreigners go anywhere, anytime, unannounced in the name of compliance with UN mandates? Could you imagine the American reaction if somehow the world came to call for unfettered inspections of our WMD stockpiles?

The fact that he complied in principle with the call for a new round of inspections reveals that his pride as a head of state, never mind his quirky fascination with exotic weaponry, took a back seat to personal survival. He may have been a megalomaniac with other psychological disorders, but he was still sane enough to think that “let the inspectors in or we’ll invade” meant that letting the inspectors in would avert an American-led invasion.

Somehow, collectively, our nation failed to exhibit even that level of mental health. From distortions implying a dangerous level of non-compliance to Dick Cheney’s outright lies about a working relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda, almost no major media outlets had the courage to challenge propaganda points. On a good day, blatant deceptions about the level of menace posed by Iraq were still presented as valid opinions . . . one of “two sides to the story.”

Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to a story. Oceans are mostly water. If someone with a different political mindset than me contends that oceans are mostly vodka, that would not create a legitimate controversy. The right way for news and information media to cover that dispute would be to point out that the vodka theory is demonstrably wrong and the water theory is confirmed by countless credible observations. The fact that a man with a secret underground lair and a cyborg heart told the nation that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda — that is a great reason to do exposés on Vice Presidential dishonesty. It does nothing to justify pieces lending credence to Dick Cheney’s bizarre assertions.

Yet even today, his body long grown cold, the pro-war machine continues to slander Saddam Hussein. Fred Thompson has taken it upon himself to tug at those strings of misguided fear, still useful for controlling all those gullible patriots who were so certain the administration was accurate in its public assessment of the threat posed by prewar Baghdad.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. However, he was a very bad man who was very much in love with the idea of staying in his own skin. His narcissism would never allow WMD development to take precedence over personal security. Anyone anywhere near the Presidency who still doesn’t get that point is far too inept a judge of human character to manage a small business, never mind a modern superpower.

So, what should you think about Saddam Hussein? As an individual his life is a case study in irony. He clearly deserved as harsh a punishment as any human authority is fit to dish out, yet his ultimate fate seems to have been sealed for all the wrong reasons. For so much of his life he was the epitome of villainous, yet in the end he died no differently than would any hero of a conquered nation.

Like other heads of state in power today, some collaborating contentedly with the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein was a monster who tormented his own people ruthlessly. Yet like those other tyrants, he was also in no way a threat to the American people. Perhaps, after stripping away the misinformation about WMD programs and terrorism, there remained some sort of case for pursuing regime change in Iraq.

If so, nothing about that case justified putting Afghanistan on the proverbial back burner or diverting assets away from efforts to neutralize the original Al Qaeda. In a century so far dominated by tragically misguided national priorities, stoking public hatred toward Saddam Hussein proved an effective way to make the American public less rational and thus, temporarily, more supportive of a bold move to take our foreign policy headlong in the direction of historic folly.


What You Should Think About the War

September 30, 2007

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Bonus points go out to readers reacting to this title with the thought, “which war?” Efforts ongoing in Afghanistan could be said to constitute a war. The stage has been set for perpetual warfare in Iraq. The latter is clearly the 800 lbs. gorilla in any room where American politics are up for discussion. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a worthy topic unto itself, as are many facets of it. It would be wrong to avoid it entirely in my first essay here to go beyond self-reference.

Yet I do want to take it in context. That means examining the Global War on Terror. Like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, it is an idea that wears its faults in its name. “War” is the clash of great powers employing force of arms to defeat dangerous enemies. Terror (as defined by the creators of GWoT) does not come at us with legions of uniformed soldiers. This is as true as the fact that there are no marines set to storm beaches in the name of Poverty nor an air force poised to rain down fire on enemies of Drugs.

The decision to couch counterterrorism policy in the language of war is deliberately misleading. The false narrative it promotes empowers Al Qaeda and so many copycat groups by raising them up to the level of dire threats capable of destroying the American way of life. Without that lie, their power is actually fairly feeble. What’s that? Terrorists are weak, and they do not deserve our fear? Then why has the world turned so in these past six years?

The world seemed to shake on September 11th, 2001. Actually, the globe’s vibrations were fairly normal. It was the hazy atmosphere around our world that was abuzz with the news of the day. Nearly 3,000 people, including citizens from dozens of other nations, died in attacks against powerful American institutions. Many great human beings were murdered by those malicious hijackers. Yet the most notable casualty of the day might be the myth of American invulnerability.

The desire to restore perfect national security was real, even if the security itself never was. Much time would pass before any voices of prominence asked, “how much safety is enough?” It would be a happy occurrence if we could keep traffic fatalities below 3,000 in any given month. Taking a rational approach, we should be a great deal more afraid of our cars than we should be of Al Qaeda. Unfortunately for the world, a pair of religious extremists (both formerly oil money playboys) made it their business to crush rational approaches to terrorism.

Admittedly, Osama bin Laden would be out of a job if his followers had the good sense to abandon violence and pursue other methods of advancing their agendas. On the other hand, it seems bizarre that an American President would want actual terrorist attacks (never mind intercepted chatter about terrorist attacks or idle speculation about possible terrorism) to successfully terrorize people. Yet again and again and again, this real threat is made to seem cause for much greater concern than many other equally real, and much more threatening, phenomena.

A false narrative exaggerating the power of terrorists is a really lousy thing for American morale, prosperity, etc. However, it is a very useful thing for purposes of consolidating political power and expanding the scope of the police state. Perhaps the executive branch really is run by some sinister Machiavellian throwback, or perhaps it is only that public policy has been painted with too broad a brush. Whatever the mechanism, its output is unmistakable.

“We have to do everything we can to support the troops,” becomes a mandate to ignore the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, ignore the shamelessly incompetent planning behind that war, and even turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of mercenaries far more eager to cash in on our flag than to honor it. “We have to do everything we can to keep secrets from our enemies,” becomes a mandate to stonewall all manner of legitimate investigations, conduct unwarranted surveillance on American citizens, and even operate secret prisons in far off lands where civilized oversight becomes a non-issue.

The Department of Homeland Security’s spending is so disordered that adequate records to certify an audit simply do not exist. Meanwhile the Pentagon continues a long string of failed audits. Hey, there’s a war on – bean counting will have to wait, right? The missile defense shield as it is already being built cannot defend against missiles? Don’t anybody dare let the public understand this or we’ll all look weak in front of those deadly terrorists! Even something like the political tactics that spawned the term “swiftboating” becomes excusable to an American coward living in constant terror of Al Qaeda’s next move (provided that same fearful patriot also buys into a false narrative implying a partisan monopoly on security and strength.)

If you live in, work at, or commute across a landmark famed the world over, perhaps it is excusable to indulge in a moment’s fear from time to time. Fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying. As feelings, neither can really be “wrong,” though preoccupation with such fears can be unhealthy. After all, we would be fools to let people living in constant fear of flying set aviation policy for the entire nation. By the same logic, our counterterrorism policy should not rest on a foundation of constant fear.

Did we need to expand our intelligence services and special forces programs so as to better locate and neutralize confirmed terrorist operatives? That sounds like a reasonable response to world events. Did we need to accelerate spending on a brand new fleet of stealthy air superiority warplanes? That has nothing to do with terrorism, but under the umbrella of “the best equipment for our armed forces” it adds many billions more to this unprecedented borrowing binge.

In the contorted self-serving logic of the political insider, this unilateral arms race must continue because the defense industry performs the indispensable role of funding political campaigns for individuals willing to facilitate runaway spending on big ticket military technology. From Russkies to ragheads, the true nature of a demonized adversary matters little. It is the climate of fear, promoted more effectively by our own public officials than any foreign attackers, that stifles vital legitimate questions about the usefulness of vast swaths of appropriations to the Pentagon.

While big (taxpayer) bucks for big aerospace remain untouched by present policy, several of America’s proudest traditions were not to be preserved intact. The terrorist menace demands that expanded security services possess expanded powers, and those damned terrorists are so clever and dangerous that not even investigative journalists with well-earned security clearances should get the facts about how these services actually operate. Imagine how quickly Katie Couric would lose her job if she ever modified the phrase “secret police force” with “American.” Yet what else are these security agents, legally exempted from judicial oversight while hauling suspects off to obscure foreign prisons, but America’s new secret police?

Soon I intend to address operations in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan. Actual “army in the field” wars certainly merit ample attention. Yet I believe this political context is the only way to make sense of executive work product shaping the courses of events in those nations. There was, and continues to be, far too much emphasis on preserving false narratives used to popularize White House policies. Reasonable informed discourse is typically crowded out by bickering about misinformation. Understanding the extent, and perceived value, of those lies may help pave the way for their decisive dismissal.

So, what should you think about the war? When it comes to the Global War on Terror, you should first and foremost think that terrorists are, in terms of actually killing Americans, somewhere in the same league as movie theater popcorn butter or black ice on the highway. A governmental response to terrorism is sensible . . . but this response?!? It seems to only validate the theory that America has been well and truly terrorized.

Whether or not that is true, just imagine the progress that could have been made concentrating hundreds of billions of dollars of American ingenuity and industriousness into an anti-cancer effort or an Apollo Program for alternative energy research. I’m enough of a patriot to think that we could have kicked cancer’s ass by now. What did our nation really gain . . . and what did we lose . . . by pursuing priorities emergent from the Global War on Terror?