Friday, October 20, 2006

Political smorgasbord

Rather than encumber you with one of my long-winded posts that no one responds to, I will throw out a few brief notes and see what sticks.

Starting with my freshest memory: I saw Seymour Hersh speak tonight. It was very strange, much like watching George Pepe deliver a talk about international policy. Hersh stumbled, ranted, went off on wild tangents about historical figures, was self-deprecating, cut people's applause off ("That's nothing to applaud--No, no, really, please, please, ahhhh...Abu Ghraib!"); but in general, it was informative, if only to see a totally different type of journalistic personality. Hersh has never hidden his political slant ("I'm a left-wing Jew. You know us."), so he's much more like I.F. Stone than an "elder statesman of journalism" figure like Bob Woodward. (Both were mentioned in the course of the talk--Hersh seemed jealous of Woodward's connections but a bit dismissive of his journalistic prestige.) Hersh gave the impression that he was just this normal guy, flying by the seat of his pants, who always happened to be at the right place at the right time (on stories like My Lai, Watergate, etc). He downplayed "official sources" and seemed totally oblivious to norms of fact-checking and exactitude. Many times he said "I mean, I know people who know this stuff. Or they know people they heard it from." In other words, take my word for it. It wasn't necessarily sloppy, just...old-fashioned. It was like he was still a young reporter on a beat, kind of quaint. Not much new to learn from the speech, though. He did mention Strauss at one point, saying that he knew him at Chicago and that his philosophy really was anti-liberal. He described neoconservative/Straussian debate sessions where they "sit around and read Aristotle." More likely Plato, but okay. The talk was part of this "Thinking Humanity after Abu-Ghraib" series, which is continuing tomorrow with talks by the original researcher of the Stanford prison experiment, as well as Judith Butler. The Communists made it out from Berkeley to pass out literature after the speech. I took a CD-ROM of speeches by Bob Avakian, "Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party." Creepy maoist stuff, this.

Second, perhaps you've seen by now this manifesto by American academic liberals in response to this Tony Judt essay in the London Review of Books. Judt's essay was certainly unfair in many respects--it painted the broadest strokes possible, and basically said it was the liberal intelligentsia's fault that Bush had gotten away with so much--but what exactly does this self-satisfied statement of principles accomplish? At least with the awful Euston Manifesto and its American counterpart you can have fun playing "spot the conservative signatory." ("Oh look, there's Eliot Cohen! And there's Michael Ledeen! Maybe you can spread democracy with airstrikes after all!") With this new manifesto, all you get is recycled platitudes. It also leads with a curious declaration of support for Israel, perhaps in response to Judt's own belief in a bi-national state? Which has gotten him in trouble recently, don't you know. Anyway, I don't want to malign the signers or question their motives (in fact, I read and respect the views of many of them, and one of them is my professor this quarter), but again, what does this accomplish? When the dust settles around this Presidency, with or without the help of opposition from liberal academics, will this be proof that they were on the "right side"? Personally I find programs like the Project for the New American Century much more interesting, if only because the members end up in government positions, rather than upper-level politics courses. Read it, though.

Third, if the name "JD Hayworth" does not immediately equal "Congressional dumbass" in your minds, it will now. Although there are too many stupid politicians to choose from, our boy JD (R-AZ) takes the cake for his recent remarks about Jews. After refusing to stand down from his support for Henry Ford's racist "Americanization" program, he had campaign supporters tell a synogogue that Hayworth is a "more observant Jew" than them (despite the fact that--ta-da!--he is not Jewish), and when met with boos, one supporter apparently said "No wonder there are anti-Semites." This election year is proving to me that American politicians haven't forgotten racism, despite the centrality of the "terrorist appeaser" tactic. Some new ads in favor of Patrick Rooney contain interesting dialogue between black men about their "hos." In Tennessee, Republicans sent out flyers with a photo of Democrat Harold Ford Jr. darkened to make him appear "blacker." All in a day's work.

Finally, I very much enjoyed this little gem from Missouri's own Rep. Roy Blunt: "[If they gain the majority,] Democrats will plot to establish a Department of Peace, raise your taxes, and minimize penalties for crack dealers." Condoleezza Rice would put it like this: "There is no greater threat to long term peace in the Middle East than a Department of Peace."


Blogger Robot said...

I think the Judt piece should be read in tandem with Frank Rich´s book review essay in the latest NYRB. As Rich describes, it´s silly to pretend all of this liberal in-fighting is about anything else than one thing: Iraq. Judt´s essay, plain and simply, is one of the most punishing attacks on the liberal war-supporters I have read. If it´s unfair, it´s only because a few of the people he mentions have now admitted they were wrong to support the war (ie. Peter Beinhart). Regardless, Judt and the rest (including the signees of the response to his essay) WERE right about the war, and the worse things get, the more pissed these kinds of people are -- rightfully -- becoming.

As for the other Judt contraversy, it´s just a shame. While in England I bought his book on "Postwar" Europe, and when my grandfather saw me reading it, he declared that he had heard that Judt (though nothing more) was one of those "anti-semetic Jews." While I myself am equally skeptical about the plausability of a bi-national state, the idea itself is certainly not an anti-semetic one. On the contrary, it´s obviously an extremely mature moral stance given the age we live in; and, given the failure of the status quo, it can´t be much worse than the other (lack) of ideas floating around. Regardless, to call the idea anti-semetic is intellectually dishonest and disgraceful.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I think we ought to pay very close attention to the nature of all these "admissions of error" and "reneges" on the part of conservatives but especially liberals. These days, retracting one's support for the launching of the war (notice I don't say the continuance of it) is the cool thing to do. Among conservatives, George Will did it long ago. Add Buckley Jr., John Derbyshire, Andrew Sullivan (more on him later), and now Jonah Goldberg to the list. Now, the trend among these people is to say, "Hey, I thought this would be a lot easier! Turns out, it's hard. Anti-war types are still rabid America-hating subhumans. I, on the other hand, love America too much to support this anymore--I'm looking out for her best interests." No mention of the thousands of Iraqis killed. No mention of the extreme unlawfulness of invading another nation. In fact, most of them are happy to admit that the WMD were a trifle; the real point was setting up a democratic Iraq. Goldberg, in his LA Times "Iraq was a Worthy [!] Mistake" column, explicitly says "The failure to find weapons of mass destruction is a side issue...Washington's more important intelligence failure lay in underestimating what would be required to rebuild and restore post-Hussein Iraq." At the NRO Corner blog, he adds, "it was supposed to be comparatively easy."

Andrew Sullivan gushes over this "honesty," bestowing upon it his "Matthew Yglesias" award for those who "actually criticize their own side [imagine!] and generally risk something for the sake of what they believe [I'm glad we're giving out awards for this now]." Sullivan, who is easily the most egomaniacal blogger out there in his own, modest 'conservative of doubt' way, has been basking in the light of his own "Yglesias award" for months now, "heroically" standing up to the Bush administration for its failures in Iraq. In discussing Goldberg's similarly "bold" statements, he asks this burning question: "Was this project always doomed or did the execution doom it?"

Who in the FUCK cares if it was NEVER doomed, if it turned out that the Iraqis set up a perfect parliamentary system and could spontaneously sprout roses out of their assholes which they lovingly bestowed upon their American "liberators"? There is something terribly toxic in the water in America if we cede the fact that we're engaging in "wars of choice" and talk about the relative "difficulties" of such wars; that the basic, fundamental tenets of just war, self defense, and non-aggression, founded by our supposedly "Enlightened" Western tradition (not to mention the rule of law, human rights, and due process) are all as disposable as yesterday's soiled diapers in the face of this "new and dangerous" enemy. As long as these people continue to talk this way, they're speaking on the wrong plane of debate entirely. Their meae culpae, spoken in the face of nearly 3000 American deaths and a devastating new Lancet study, all couched in the language of "too bad it was so hard, it was such a *noble* idea," are the most disgusting sort of opportunism. They only care about this war as a rhetorical merit badge; their admission of "error" is just a way to deflect the mounting criticism of this human rights debacle. "Oh, perhaps you didn't read my column, Leftie: I denounced this war long ago. But I denounced it in the right way: in a way that essentially leaves the path of preemptive aggression open and forces you to 'care' about the Iraqis. Don't you care that we finish the job, now that it's started?" If only our elected leaders would employ this kind of defense: the obviousness of their guilt would be that much more apparent at the Hague, where they belong.

Now, what does all this have to do with liberals? Well, look at the American Prospect Manifesto:

"We have all opposed the Iraq war as illegal, unwise, and destructive of America's moral standing. This war fueled, and continues to fuel, jihadis whose commitment to horrific, unjustifiable violence was amply demonstrated by the September 11 attacks as well as the massacres in Spain, Indonesia, Tunisia, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Rather than making us safer, the Iraq war has endangered the common security of Americans and our allies."

Okay, the war was "illegal." Other than this technicality, its main faults are that it "makes us less safe," "lowers our moral standing," etc. Why are so many liberals afraid to venture beyond this mealy-mouthed pragmatism? Why can't we call this war what it is, which is a moral calamity, an unjust aggression, a barbarism wreaked upon a long-suffering people? Unless liberals are willing to come out and admit this, I can't but worry about their future decisions. We are currently afraid to look ourselves in the face and see our guilt. We'd rather fret over our "lost moral high ground," our "tactical mistakes," the "cost" to our global standing. If we were ever presented with another opportunity, however, this one "guaranteed" to go our way, have we shown that we could pass it up? I wonder.

Goldberg, at one point in his column, says, "And the claims from Democrats who voted for the war that they were lied to strikes me as nothing more than cowardly buck-passing." He's right. It was and is cowardly, but because we *were* lied to, and no one had the fortitude to stand up to it. That means us too, because for God's sake, this is nominally supposed to be a democracy. The American people did not do enough to prevent this war. I didn't. I was turned off by the "groupthink" and "herd instinct" of protests, marches, "activism." But maybe if we had been less concerned about our own "lameness," about looking like those naive students back in the 60s, many thousands of Iraqis would still be alive today. I don't know how much it would have taken. Certainly, the protests against this war were huge and worldwide, but they couldn't stop it. Now, however, the very least we can do is promise never again (and that means Iran, in part, of course). And until liberals, and especially our government officials, say this, I cannot fully trust them.

Many people lately have pointed out my increasing radicalism, and I haven't denied it. And yeah, I've read a lot of radical literature lately, become much more wary of capitalism, United States power, etc. But I'm still firmly committed to liberal human rights, and I think they should be preserved, even in the face of progressive, radical change, or what have you. And my opposition to the war, and my demands from my elected leaders, are based on nothing less than the "liberalest" of liberal principles.

Big deal, you say. I say this on a computer screen, in a comfortably furnished university dorm, miles away from either the site of the action or the site of resistance. And this is part of the problem of modern warfare. We can decide not to pay too much attention, to let the decisions continue to be made, and people we will never know (and the sort of people we would probably never get to know or hang out with) will go off to a foreign country and kill and be killed for nothing. That distance on our part is the rotten core of it; our ability to speak of the war only in the most distant, abstract terms, with no knowledge of what it's really like, I think it putrefies our souls. It makes us worse democratic citizens, and I think there's nothing that the current government would prefer more. So I say this not to justify myself to the world, or to prove myself to the greater public; who reads this blog, really, besides us? But that's the point--I say this to my friends, because your friends deserve to know before anyone else, and I don't think that in all our cleverness and irony and love of belles lettres we have always been as honest to each other as friends as we ought. We are all thoughtful people, and I'm sure my opinions are not isolated or freak occurances among you. But it's time to start thinking seriously about what we can do to help end this madness. So I invite you to contact me and talk to me about what you think we can do, about what I think it is our duty to do. It comes as a surprise, but we're adults now and our decisions and votes can affect other people's lives. And because we have no experience to look back upon, it's hard to realize that now we are in the middle of a situation where our action counts the most.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I marched in opposition to the war; a year later I began to believe that the war had the potential to benefit the Iraqi people and so gave it my support. In retrospect the latter seems like a mistake, but I'm not really interested in punishing myself for it, just as I'm not willing to pat myself on the back for marching against the war. We need to allow for the possibility that people are still learning, even people who weren't in college during the past four years.
As an example, think about what we should do right now. Should we pull out completely? Should we compromise with Islamists? Or, would the most moral action be to radically increase the amount of troops in Iraq so that there might be an actual hope of peace?
I tend to think the latter would be the solution. It would require a draft. It would require that Americans give material and personal support to a war that is morally questionable. But I conclude that it's the most moral solution because it would save the most lives.
The problem is that this solution is utterly ridiculous. There's not a chance in hell that it would be politically feasible, and, even if it were, that any politician would have the moral rectitude to even suggest it.
If there's anything that we've learned in Iraq, it's that we have no idea what our capabilities are. It's been a lesson in the need for Popperian restrain. Problem is, we're in a situation where we have to choose between different large-scale social actions, none of whose consequences are predictable in the least. So even though people are throwing around the heaviest moral condemnations, none of it means anything. No one can possibly know what we should do.
As much as I would like to join with you in helping others, I don't think there is a way to "help end this madness". There's no way to know what we should do.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I guess my point is that, if we're really interested in making the best moral decision right now, and we're not here to make moral pronouncements about "war" or "violence" or "democracy," and, instead, we're worried about the number of people who die in Iraq and around the world in the next 10, 15 or 50 years, then the most moral course of action is to increase exponentially the amount of troops in Iraq. Which seems counterintuitive, but also avoids the kind of realism and mealy-mouthed pragmatism that you're disgusted with. It's this kind of thinking that lead me to want to join the armed forces two years ago. In retrospect that would have been a dumb way to help accomplish my goals because of the utter helplessness of our current strategy in Iraq. So what is the best way to accomplish those goals? And what actual action can we take as individuals toward those goals? And would it even make sense, given the current political situation?

2:17 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

And, to add a third chapter to "Thoughts on Scantron," I want to reference the Guardian article on Bush's exit strategy possibilities (via Juan Cole).,,1928058,00.html

Here's the list, with comments by Cole:

1. British out now. This is possible, but as the events in Amara on Friday show, will be attended by instability.

2. US and Coalition troops out now: ' "We could pull out now and leave them to their fate," a [British] Foreign Office official said. "But the place could implode." '

3. Phased withdrawal. (Can be easily derailed by events.)

4. Talk to Iran and Syria.

5. Remove Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in favor of a strongman. (Iyad Allawi, the CIA asset and former Baathist thug has been mentioned.)

6. Break-up of Iraq

7. A US retreat to super-bases.

8. One last push.

What is the best option? And is there any chance that the actual people of America will be consulted on this kind of high politics? I doubt it. What is to be done?

2:29 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I appreciate your response(s). Obviously, my condemnations (which tend to get carried away, I admit) need to come back to some sort of practical range of options. However, I think that I really do have a rationally thought through answer to match my ire. My answer is a phased pullout over the course of the next year. But I'll get back to that.

You raise the point about increasing troop levels to finally snuff out the insurgency, and the practical impossibility of this. Yeah, it ain't gonna happen; and John McCain has caught flak recently for insisting that it can. (He called Chris Matthews' tough questioning about this a sign of bias, but it's just freakin' *logical*--how are we going to sustain 100,000 more troops?) I suppose this falls under #8 in the Cole list: One Last Push. Cole calls it the "stupidest and most dangerous tactic of all." I don't know if it means one last push at our current troop levels or with an increase, but I think he might be right. As long as there is an occupying force in Iraq, there will be an insurgency. The problem is to see it in terms of US and the Iraqi people vs. Islamists who don't want peace. What's more likely is that there are some insurgent groups who want to set up a reactionary government, but there are others who are doing what military groups typically do against external forces of aggression: attempt to repel them. So, in addition to the obvious nasties: Baathist loyalists, foreign Islamist terrorists, reactionary religious groups, etc, there are nationalists, communists, and so on, and often they derive their support from peaceful but partisan groups like the trade unions. Lenin's Tomb has a recent post about this group:

However, there are two greater points to consider. 1: The overwhelming majority of the violence in Iraq, at least up until the end of last year, was directed at coalition forces (the victims of course were not necessarily coalition troops.) Fred Kaplan discussed this in a February column:

See especially this graph (it's pretty astounding):

We are usually told how bad the sectarian violence is, and how the country will collapse if we leave, but doesn't this suggest that our presence is exacerbating the situation?

2: The Iraqis want us out. They think it is in their interest and their safety. They think that we should leave, and also that we make Iraq more dangerous rather than less. See these Wash Post articles from last month:

Interestingly, a large majority, including Sunnis and Kurds (!), believe that Iraq will remain one state in the next 5 years.

Of course, it may be that US intelligence knows much more than the average Iraqi, but given its track record of immense failure I am willing to weigh the two sides as relatively equal.

To return to Cole's list for a minute, we have already said that #8 is probably not going to happen, nor should it (so I think). #5 and 6 should also be ruled out, 5 especially since our only aim at this point is to ensure Iraqi democracy. I'm not sure the point of #7 (the worst of both worlds as Larry Diamond calls it). Nor do I see the ultimate purpose of #4. #1 doesn't really concern us as Americans, so that leaves 2 and 3. The Guardian article is already calling 3 the most likely option, although it's impossible to say what the administration will allow. Still, they might be more open after this election (there's politics for ya).

So, to sum up: the most moral option in my mind is to leave Iraq. It is also the one most favored by Iraqis. It also might be the option waiting in the wings already with the Baker Commission. So, petition the hell out of the government to follow through with it, and especially after the election when they have less to lose. So, letter writing, petition signing, rally attending, candidate support, and of course voting are the best and most effective options.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

A couple points:
Sure, the majority of recorded attacks are on Coalition forces. But that ignores two things: one, coalition forces are much more likely to be able to report attacks and do so with complete precision, while civilians face intimidation, apathy, and no significant benefit when they report crimes. It's like Seinfeld says: after you report your first burglary and hear the cops say "Yeah, we'll see what we can do," there's not a lot of incentive to continue to report. Two, in doesn't matter if the majority of attacks are on Coalition forces. What matters is who suffers the most significant attacks. And that's clearly civilians. Coalition forces may report more shots fired against them, but if there's anything that these Lancet statistics show, it's the civilians who are suffering the most from violence.
I'm not strongly attached to these points, although I believe that they are correct. The point is neither you, nor I, know what to make of them, or even if they are correct. In the end, we have no fucking idea what will happen if/when we pull out. This doesn't mean that we should stay in. But it does mean that I don't think I can make an honest recommendation for one course of action over another. So even though I love the rhetorical flair of your list of gerunds, I can't engage in any of them because I don't know what policy to recommend.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Well, besides candidate support and voting.

9:27 AM  

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