November 2006

Leak: Baker-Hamilton will be a dud?

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

If the final recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton New-ideas-for-Iraq Study Group are correct as outlined by unnamed leakers in thismorning’s New York Times, is this anything at all?

“The bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached a consensus on Wednesday on a final report that will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal, according to people familiar with the panel’s deliberations.”

In other words, plan to start leaving, but not at any particular time.

“The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries.”

And “pullback” doesn’t necessarily mean out of Iraq. Maybe, but not necessarily.

“‘I think everyone felt good about where we ended up,’ one person involved in the commission’s debates said after the group ended its meeting. “‘It is neither ‘cut and run’ nor ‘stay the course.’’ ”

I’ve been asking for some time whether there really was something between those two policies. Apparently there is, if you just say there is and don’t ask too many questions about what it is.

A person who participated in the commission’s debate said that unless the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki believed that Mr. Bush was under pressure to pull back troops in the near future, “there will be zero sense of urgency to reach the political settlement that needs to be reached.”

So this is not really a recommendation of a change in U.S. policy, strategy or tactics, but an attempt to motivate al-Maliki by creating an impression that Bush doesn’t really mean what he says when he says “I’m not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.”

Maybe the leaks are wrong. But if they’re correct, am I missing the secret substance and potential impact of these new ideas?

Civil War?

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

The mainstream media is suddenly making a fairly big deal about the semantic question of whether the unpleasantness in Iraq can be called a “civil war.” How important is this?

Bush’s fault?

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

During the discussion yesterday of Abbas Mehdi’s sad report from Baghdad, a new commenter calling him/herself Bushesfault posted a compilation of quotes from Bill Clinton, high-ranking officials of his administration, and other prominent Democrats, between 1998 and 2003, stating their conviction in various contexts that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or the determination to develop them, that he would use them, that he would continue stockpiling them (or trying to) as long as he remained in power, that the weapons were a serious threat to the U.S. and its interests, and the situation could not be allowed to continue. I’ve reposted the quotes on an attached page for easy reference and I’ve asked Bushesfault for his source(s). Pending his reply, I believe I may have located it here.

The quotes were clearly intended as a rebuke to those critics of the war who rely overmuch on the belief that the mess in Iraq is attributable to the stupidity, incompetence lies and intelligence distortions of President Bush and his administration. This post invites a discussion of whether the unarguable fact that President Clinton and the Clinton-era intelligence agencies believed that Saddam had WMD and that such weapons represented, as Madeleine Albright said, “the greatest security threat we face” make in unfair to make too many things Bush’s fault.”

A couple of points to kick things off:

* The first few quotes on the list from Clinton and his minions come from 1998, during the buildup of a crisis over Iraqi non-cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors. In December 1998, the inspectors were withdrawn and the U.S. launched punitive cruise missile attacks. Clinton vowed that sanctions and the no-fly-zones would remain in place until Iraq complied with disamament agreements. This constitutes at least a partial answer to the question: What was Clinton’s plan for dealing with the threat represented by Saddam and WMD.

* In signing the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, Clinton did embrace regime change in iraq as a goal of the U.S. governments. But the law did not contemplate an invasion/occupation to accomplish the overthrow. None of the quotes on the attached page you get to Kerry and Hillary Clinton quotes on the eve of the vote for the resolution authorizing war (both voted for it) that favor a military overthrow of Saddam. Three of the Dem. Sens. who are quoted in the bushesfault list (Robert Byrd, Bob Graham of Fla. and Ted Kennedy) voted against the resolution. So whatever they may have believed about WMD, they opposed the war, as did Al Gore. (Full list of who voted yes and no one resolution here.)

*It is too often overlooked that Bush’s threats to invade did succeed in getting the U.N. inspectors back into Iraq, where they had untrammeled access to the sites they wanted to inspect including, presumably, the sites at which various Bush administration officials said they knew to contain WMD. They found none. It has always struck me that, unless you dismiss completely the value of U.N. arms inspections, this was a very key moment when the understanding of the status of Iraq’s weapons program was updated in a more reliable, verifiable way than conflicting intelligence assessments could provide.

What think about the Dem. quotes, and the points above?

A report from Iraq by Iraqi-Minnesotan Abbas Mehdi

Monday, November 27th, 2006

“If the US leaves, it will make the situation here worse very quickly; but if the US stays, it will become worse very slowly. “

That grim assessment of the future of Iraq comes from Abbas Mehdi, a St. Cloud State sociologist who moved from Minnesota to Baghdad in September to try to make a difference for the better in his homeland.

I’ve posted the full text of his latest email from Baghdad on this attached page.

Mehdi was on a short list of quotable Iraqi-born Minnesotans to whom reporters could turn over recent years (he’s lived in Minn. since 1988 and headed a small anti-Saddam expat group) for the treasured “local angle” on Iraq.

His assessments were always dramatic; sometimes proved to be correct (he had Ahmed Chalabi’s number from the beginning and begged everyone in Washington and elsewhere not to trust Chalabi); sometimes were rumors he picked up from his Iraqi contacts that proved false (I quoted him in the early stages of the current war to the effect that Saddam had gathered millions of troops, including many foreign fighters, for a last stand in Baghdad that would involve the use of the nastiest weapons in Saddam’s arsenal).

He supported the overthrow of Saddam, but wanted Iraqis to do it themselves. He opposed the war and the occupation at almost every turn and has been consistently pessimistic about the Bush tactics and strategy for Iraq. Does that make him a pessimist, or a realist?

A Thankgiving report from Amish country, by guest poster Doug Tice

Monday, November 27th, 2006

I am possessed by an old farm house in southeastern Minnesota. I spent a few days there this Thanksgiving week. One day, as I drove past my Amish neighbors’ farm in the golden half light of a warm November afternoon, on my way to run some errands, I noticed Jonas, the patriarch of the place, out in the farm yard hitching up his big Belgian work horses for some chore.

Jonas and I exchanged pleasantries about everybody’s health and the unseasonably fine weather and then he asked how my work at the newspaper went. I said it went well, adding that I’d been very busy for some months with election coverage and was glad to have it behind me.

“So what do you think?” he asked — meaning, it was clear, about the election outcome.

I wanted to tread carefully, and so held forth about how everything would be fine; how the political balance shifts back and forth, always changing government policy less in the end than some hope and others fear; how life in our lucky country was sure to go on pretty much as before.

Jonas nodded thougtfully, apparently agreeing with these banalities but wanting something more.

“I guess,” I added, hoping to satisfy him, “that people just felt we needed a change.”

“I do too,” Jonas replied.

I was intrigued to learn that he had evidently been following the election news with some interest, and had formed a pretty definite opinion. I would very much have liked to explore his views further. But I was shy about pressing him. He volunteered no details.

For what it’s worth (probably not much) I suspect the war in Iraq may figure large in Jonas’s attitude. I’m not sure whether Amish pacifism is so pure that they would oppose war under all circumstances, but it is likely strong enough for them to disapprove of any violence that could reasonably be avoided or ended.

“May I ask you a question, Jonas?” I said. “Do you vote?”

“No,” he said, “we don’t vote.”

“I didn’t think you did,” I said. “But you do keep up on things?”

“We don’t vote,” he repeated. “We pray.”

“That’s good to know,” I answered.

And so it is. Happy Thanksgiving one and all.

Giving Thanks

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

So it turns out, as with most such topics, the popular culture version of Thanksgiving’s history is riddled with myth and error.

I am content, for present purposes, to think of Thanksgiving as an occasion to make doubly sure that I feel and express gratitude for many things for which I ought to feel thankful all year round.

Always atop the list are my wife and kids, friends and extended family, and the freedom and prosperity with which my life has been blessed mostly because of my brilliant decision to be born to kind parents in mid-20th century America, a time, place and cirumstance where the building blocks of a wonderful life were good for the getting.

A more recent addition to the list of things for which I am grateful is the opportunity to blog, for and with you. After too many years of working within the Scyllo-Charybdian rules of what you can write for the newspaper, blogging has been liberating and stimulating. Thank you for the time and attention you have donated to make the blog a (for the moment) going concern. Thanks for the thousands of civil, substantive comments. (As for some of the less civil/substantive comments: I’ll think about them in a non-holiday mood.)

Please ignore that last parenthetical. I’ll be thankful.

I hereby declare a hiatus through Sunday.


Bush: “We’ll succeed unless we quit”

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Any opportunity for Bush critics to make him out an ignoramus is apparently so tempting that they sometimes don’t wait for instances where he said something truly ignorant.

The recent kerfuffle over Bush’s statement about the lesson of the Vietnam War for the war in Iraq — “We’ll succeed unless we quit” — is a recent case where his remarks are being misconstrued to make it look like Bush thinks the U.S. won the Vietnam war.

Former CIAster Larry C. Johnson took it the furthest over the top of the instances I’ve seen, with a post on Daily Kos titled “Someone Tell Bush We Lost Vietnam.”

The Star Tribune’s lead editorial joined the game today with its lead editorial headlined and subtitled:
Lessons of Vietnam are lost on Bush
His Hanoi allusions to Iraq turn history on its head

The Strib piece doesn’t go as far as Johnson did to suggest that Bush thinks the U.S. won. And I have no quarrell with the argument that Bush’s idea of the lesson on Vietnam is self-serving and part of conservative lore.

But a halfway fair reading of Bush’s comment, in full context, reveals it to be a true observation, neither very dumb nor very smart, that the United States was not defeated in Vietnam in a conventional military sense of being driven from the field by a superior army.

And if the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq without achieving its oft-changing and increasingly chimerical objectives, it will not be a conventional military defeat of the old kind. It will be a defeat of the increasingly common new kind in which a local guerrilla insurgency outlasts a superpower because of what you might call home field advantage.

Here’s the full text of the exchange, which occurred in Hanoi during a joint appearance of Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Q What does it mean to you, personally, and what do you think it means to other Americans who experienced some of the turbulence of the Vietnam War that you’re here now, talking cooperation and peace with a former enemy?

PRESIDENT BUSH: You know, Laura and I were talking about — we were talking about how amazing it is we’re here in Vietnam. And one of the most poignant moments of the drive in was passing the lake where John McCain got pulled out of the lake. And he’s a friend of ours; he suffered a lot as a result of his imprisonment, and yet, we passed the place where he was, literally, saved, in one way, by the people pulling him out.

I guess my first reaction is history has a long march to it, and that societies change and relationships can constantly be altered to the good. And I’m looking forward to my meetings with the President and the Prime Minister here shortly. I found it really interesting, for example, that the Prime Minister’s children were educated in the United States. The Prime Minister of Vietnam who, as I understand it, was part of the Viet Cong, sends his children to our country to get educated, and one of his children ended up marrying a Vietnamese American. And it shows how hopeful the world can be and how people can reconcile and move beyond past difficulties for the common good.

Vietnam is an exciting place. It’s a place with an enormous future, and they obviously have got to work through difficulties like religious freedom, for example, but nevertheless, there’s certainly a new hopefulness to this country. And so I’m — thought a lot about what it was like, what my impressions of Vietnam were growing up, and here I am in this country today, and I guess my answer is, it’s very hopeful.

Q Are there lessons here for the debate over Iraq?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think one thing — yes, I mean, one lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while. But I would make it beyond just Iraq. I think the great struggle we’re going to have is between radicals and extremists versus people who want to live in peace, and that Iraq is a part of the struggle. And it’s just going to take a long period of time to — for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate. Yet, the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately.

And it’s hard work in Iraq. That’s why I’m so proud to have a partner like John Howard who understands it’s difficult to get the job done. We’ll succeed unless we quit. The Maliki government is going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it. And that’s why I assured the Prime Minister we’ll get the job done.

Anyway, I’m not claiming that Bush said anything brilliant here, nor that he captured the best lesson from the Vietnam war to apply to the situation in Iraq, only that he didn’t demonstrate a cluelessness about how that war turned out.

What do you think is the best lesson from the Vietnam war to apply to the situation in Iraq?

America the Polarized?

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

The ’06 election was a blow against the notion, which was all the rage in ’02 and ’04, that America is deeply, bitterly divided about politics, culture and religion.

In a properly polarized America, the political middle is disappearing, the number of competitive House districts is steadily shrinking, states are either red or blue and they stay that way, and the reddy and the bluey voters wouldn’t think of splitting their tickets, changing their minds about the Iraq War, opening their minds to any facts or arguments that would cause them to doubt the correctness of their tribal loyalty or, heaven forfend, actually switch over and vote for the enemy party.

Obviously, a lot of those things just happened. This piece, written by independent analyst Rhodes Cook for the Pew Research Center, isn’t organized around the anti-polarization analysis, but it has great numbers, in the context of the last 15 election cycles, to show how 2006 fits in.

Cook’s analysis does clarify one thing that tends to be mistaken for polarization. In matters of party and politics, America is closely divided. Neither party has received more than 52 percent of the total national vote in House elections in the last eight cycles.

But closely divided is nowhere near the same, nor nearly as troubling for our political culture, as deeply or bitterly divided would be.

Competitive House races — defined as those in which the margin of victory was five percentage points or less — surged to 66 this year, from 32 in 2004. Maybe that means the Dems grabbed a bunch of seats that they’ll have trouble holding in two years. Maybe it means the Repubs will get back much of what they just lost. But if so, that will be further evidence against the idea that we are a polarized nation.

The Big Question of Norm Coleman’s future?

Monday, November 20th, 2006

Personally, I think we could all benefit by not rushing to start thinking and talking about the next election cycle. Let’s pretend for a moment that politics is also about governing.

So I’ll hide behind my other identity, as a pusher for political junkies, to link to this post from the Washington Post’s “The Fix” by Chris Cillizza (see, he admits he’s a pusher).

Cillizza has begun looking at the Senate races that come up in ’08. The GOP starts at a big disadvantage because 21 of the 33 seats that come up in two years are now held by Repubs. Of the 21, Cillizza thinks three of them start out as competitive and, as you’ve guessed by now from the headline on this post, Cillizza thinks Norm Coleman makes the list of three.

Here’s what he says and his first draft of the DFL challenger list:

“Minnesota — Norm Coleman (R): Coleman is the Republican that Democrats love to hate. Maybe it’s because he was a former Democrat, maybe because he pulled off an unlikely victory over Walter Mondale in 2002 following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D). Whatever the reason, beating Coleman will be a high priority for Democrats in 2008. Comedian Al Franken (D) has long insisted he will challenge Coleman, but it remains to be seen whether the entertainer will follow through on his boast. National Democrats may be hoping that he stays out, as a figure as divisive as Franken could well ensure Coleman a second term. A number of other Democrats have been mentioned: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Rep. Betty McCollum, wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi and 2006 gubernatorial nominee Mike Hatch. Coleman is bracing for a fight; he had $1.8 million on hand at the end of September.”

Do You Believe in Logic?

Mona Charen on how to not think

Sunday, November 19th, 2006

A quick word on the small question of the future of the Big Question, then a new feature tentatively titled “Do You Believe in Logic?” will put the most recent Mona Charen column, which ran on the Strib op-ed page Saturday, on the seat of heat.

The plan for the moment for taking the Big Question into the post-campaign future includes continuing to do “Is That a Fact?” pieces, only now they won’t be just about campaign ads, plus the new “Verbatim” feature, and one I’m calling “Are You Sure?,” a critical thinking exercise about gaps between the conventional wisdom and the evidence that should support it.

For my next trick, I’m hereby inaugurating “Do You Believe in Logic?” (yes, it is a reference to the Lovin’ Spoonful song, if you don’t get it, ask your parents). If it works, this will be an effort to scrutinize the logic, and not just the accuracy, of public discourse.

On to Charen

I hold no particular beef with Mona Charen, whose columns semi-regularly appear in the Strib of late. But as I read her latest tour de illogical force, alarm bells kept ringing, so I thought I’d try out the new logic-watch feature at her expense.

In the third and fourth paragraphs, Charen recites the analysis, originally laid out by Karl Rove in an earlier post-election it-wasn’t-my-fault interview with the Washington Post the Republicans didn’t lose control of Congress because of the Iraq war, but because of “corruption and complacency.” (Rove claimed to have a chart showing exactly how many lost seats were attributable to each problem. That “complacency” category is a heckuva fudge factor.)

Logic alert number 1: If you lost a close election, everything that cost you votes can be called “why you lost.” It’s kinda like a baseball manager, analyzing why his team just lost a game by a score of 7-6, saying “the run that really cost us the game was the fourth one we gave up, and the sixth one, which was really the result of a bad call by the ump. But if not for those two, we woulda won.”

Charen then moves on to a claim, which she acknowledges lifting from an earlier piece by Iraq War enthusiast Michael Rubin.

Charen complains that the James Baker-Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group

“has claimed to be taking a fresh look at the situation but has already stacked its four subordinate expert working groups with committed opponents of the war in Iraq.”

Logic alert #2: Are we to understand that the commission, which was created by the Republican-controlled Congress and asked to suggest bipartisan ideas for bringing the Iraq war to a conclusion, would be better able to “take a fresh look at the situation” if it had ruled out from its staff anyone who has been skeptical of the motives for the war or its conduct so far?

Charen fears that the “Democrats and the ‘realist’ Republicans are planning to “surrender” in Iraq. She’s against that. And she has an alternative: “a renewed determination to win.”

That might sound a little vague operationally, but Charen is more specific about what it means. “Redouble our efforts.” ” Send more troops.” “Kill the insurgents.” ” Convey our unflinching determination to win.”

Might work for all I know (although it sounds an awful lot like Plan A, Plan B and Plan C that got us this far. What more could Pres. bush have done so far to show an unflinching determination to win?) Maybe those who have been killing each other and U.S. soldiers in Iraq are near the breaking point, although I know of no evidence for this.

But if Charen and others want serious consideration given to Plan D, they should logically be expected to answer this question: Just in case Plan D produces more years of futility, more Iraqi and American deaths, more billions of dollars without producing that kumbaya moment, what’s Plan E?

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