Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I read the news today, oh boy

Examining the various analyses which have been posted today concerning the findings of the Iraq Study Group, one can easily see that there are two camps, with the second camp breaking into two very distinct groups. The first camp, made up of people like the Washington Post's David Broder, are collectively orgasming over the idea of a "consensus" view in the age of "polarized" politics. Broder's column today, "A Study in Comity," sags like a tired old man's waddle under the weight of words like "bipartisanship," "example," "civility," "coming together," "goodwill," and, of course, "consensus" (3 times). In what is basically the same article but presented as news analysis, three Post staff writers concur, although I can't figure out if their piece is more consensus circle-jerking or one of the greatest exercises in stealth snarkiness I've ever seen. The language is so hyperbolic as to be irony: an "all-star" panel, assembled for what would be "one of the most anticipated study groups in modern times" (says a lot...), traversed the world and consulted hundreds of sources, even putting their lives in danger "in bulletproof vests and helmets...avoid[ing] enemy rockets," in order to deliver a 96-page report in which "every line was carefully debated." (Well, I should hope. Imagine if they snuck in a throwaway line--"Edwin Meese sniffs butts!") Then, for some reason, the writers give us an image of the self-congratulatory Group members dining on "crab cakes, beef and souffle." The most telling bit, however, comes right after one particularly autoerotic "circle of friends" moment:

"Whether the end result will prove meaningful is another question."

Oh yeah, that's right: the point of this exercise was not for a bunch of septuagenarians to play Secret fucking Santa with each other, but to find a way to manage America's Massive Bloodbath, a.k.a Iraq. I know Broder has been waiting to use the word "bipartisanship" since the good old days when Democrats and Republicans could agree on Core Values (probably something to do with pinkos and queers), but unity means nothing when the by-product is worthless. I'm sure any ten of us, despite our preferences, could ultimately decide on a consensus dog turd. ("I rather like the shape of that one." "I'll never vote for that turd!" "Guys, look--here's a piece of shit we can all agree on!") But it's still a dog turd.

That brings us to the second camp: those who recognize that the counsels of this high and mighty team of know-nothings amount to sound and fury--well, more like wheezing and chiding--signifying nothing. These are almost too limitless to list, but see The Weekly Standard, The National Review, three articles at Slate, The Nation, The American Prospect, and countless pundits and bloggers--John Podhoretz, Matt Taibbi, Matt Yglesias, and Charles Krauthammer, to name a few. What you'll notice about this camp is that its members come from extreme ideological opposites--the first camp's nightmare. Their language is often similar, especially in its contempt. Here is hardcore neoconservative Podhoretz:

"Its members also reached a consensus view that Depends is a really fine brand of adult diaper, and that they love reruns of 'Murder, She Wrote.'"

And here's Rolling Stone's own anarchist, Taibbi:

"It's important, when you nominate your panel, to dig up the oldest, saggiest, rubberiest, most used-up political whores on the Eastern seaboard to take up your cause...Baker-Hamilton was a classic whore-panel in every sense."

Both groups say the ISG report doesn't break any new ground, and that its language is vague enough to please everyone but solve nothing. Well, there are a few particularly rabid conservatives who say that the Baker-Hamilton commission "emboldened our enemies abroad" or some bullshit, and they're bristling that the report would dare advise us to talk to Iran and Syria or engage in the "Palestinian question." Their biggest complaint, of course, is that the ISG says nothing about "more troops," which is the zombie-like mantra they keep repeating these days for lack of any other ideas.

Liberals, while perhaps enjoying a moment of schadenfreude as Bush is confronted with something he would rather avoid (and this happens so very rarely), complain that the language of the report is sufficiently vague enough to lend itself to whatever plan Bush decides to pursue. They also decry the lack of a definitive timetable for withdrawal. The report merely says, "By the first quarter of 2008 … all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq." (2008--HMM, AN ELECTION YEAR.) Atrios agrees with Senator Russ Feingold that the commission is made up entirely of people who supported the war and consulted virtually no one who opposed it from the start. The main point of the liberal side seems to be that despite the fact that the Bush agenda has been struck a minor blow, everyone not living in Dodoland has known for months, even years, what the commission report says, and yet there is no substantial plan to address this common knowledge.

So, I think we can safely say that the first camp, despite this momentary victory, really has nothing to celebrate, while the latter camp has more force behind their arguments but are at complete odds on how to remedy the situation. Are we left, then, with nothing but power politics, with no "right" answer to be found, only ideological positions?

Well, no. There is a very clear difference between the conservatives and the liberals, and it has to do with realism. (I don't mean realism in the realpolitik sense; merely the everyday definition of "the empirical facts of the world as they stand.") The Broderite first camp is what we might call a-realistic. In a sense this is the most reckless and solipsistic camp, because they don't care a whit for the facts on the ground, only that Ten True Americans get together and diddle each other and call it progress. They possess an odd conception of "pragmatism" in which the goal is not to actually get anything done, but rather simply to reify the term "consensus" to the point where agreement, even on the most mundane and worthless details, is an end in itself.

The conservatives are anti-realistic. They do care about "reality," but it is a reality they have almost entirely constructed themselves. Some concede that the war is unwinnable, or at least that our current strategy is. But we simply cannot lose, because this would mean caving to our enemies, emboldening terrorists, what have you. This is the stubborn pride motive. The thymos motive, if you will. A small number think that the war is going just fine, but that some insidious subgroup has sabotaged the effort: usually the media, sometimes Democrats, sometimes the American people themselves (we're too squeamish, don't you know). As Bill Kristol humorously says, unintentionally of course: "Unfortunately, and dangerously, the president appears to have largely lost their confidence." Yet just a few sentences later he admits that the war has followed an "ineffective strategy." How, then, are we supposed to remain confident in Bush? Pure propaganda? Outright lying about the situation? I doubt Kristol has too many scruples with these tactics. He has a completely slavish and fetishistic attitude towards Bush. The picture he paints is one in which Bush can do no wrong, but that he has been misled by the Pentagon and the military. Now, if you ask me, this war has been nothing but a giant sundae in Bush's lap, open to no one except himself and a few close advisers, with the media and the opposition party largely conceding him that power until recently. The call for all power to be placed in the hands of the Supreme Leader is just a cultish reemphasis on what has been the trend all along. Again, anti-realistic. And then there's the big push for "more troops," which simply cannot be done. This is one of the more humorous (if the situation weren't so grim) parts of that Post article about the ISG:

"Robb was especially interested in sending more U.S. forces, according to one participant, and the panel considered proposals to deploy 100,000 to 200,000 additional troops. Ultimately, though, the panel discovered that there might be only 20,000 available, prompting vigorous discussion that led members to conclude that a substantial surge was unworkable."
Frederick Kagan has a long article in the Weekly Standard that tries to work with this low number. Basically, all he can recommend is sending inexperienced reserve troops and extending others' tours of duty. In other words, throwing undertrained, scared, and weary soldiers into a fight for a Grand and Noble Idea, when all experience shows us that this will not work. I guess you've got to admire Kagan's "patriotism," though... At best this tack is blind zeal, even delusion, at worst clinical insanity. In short, a world of anti-reality.

Liberals have reason to be angry. Their most basic proposals about timetables, which conform completely to the thinking of most Iraqis and now most Americans, simply will not be heard. Furthermore, those who have opposed the war from the start, or even those who have not but have consistently criticized its direction, and have been utterly vindicated since, are still considered personae non gratae. The make-up of the ISG reflects this. The wishywashyness of many Democrats, afraid to look like wimps because "Republicans are so strong on national defense," shows the pernicious side effects of this Washington-think. With the publication of this report, people like Hillary Clinton will wave it in the Administration's face while effectively doing nothing. According to Harry Reid's website, he has no timetable plan either. Nor Patrick Leahy. Nor Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Nor Carl Levin. Nor Barack Obama. Russ Feingold does, as does John Kerry, but these are our most "liberal," in many other places "unelectable" Senators. They will need much help and support, and our other politicians will need much badgering, if reality is to get its proper due.


Blogger Scantron said...

Why didn't I think of this solution? Andrew C. McCarthy of NRO has figured it all out:

"If we don’t suppress Iran, Syria, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Sunni terror funding stream in Saudi Arabia, we can’t win in Iraq."

I have a map of the Middle East and possess the ability to say "Lets go to war with [x]." Can I get a fucking job at National Review too??

2:36 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Scantron- I agree with most of what you say, but I think any hope of an early withdrawal is false. As a prediction based on my knowledge of our president and the political pressures that he will respond to, I sincerely doubt that we will pull out in any significant way until 2008. Assuming that they believe something similar, it seems that politicians, liberal or otherwise, don't really need to propose a real alternative. They can simply say that they support a pullout while watching Bush and those who will continue to support(or not work against) the war drown themselves in Iraqi quicksand. This explains why no one has a real proposal to get out.
All of this might seem to be built on a fairly cynical view of the way that our politicians will act when self-interest and the good of the country collide as well as a low estimation of Congressional power. The latter is more important than the former, because even if the new democratic congress decides to support withdrawal, it won't matter unless they can actually effect this policy. Can they? I'm not sure, but I doubt it. Because the new congress is unlikely to use brute legislative force such as funding cuts to bring the troops back due to the probable unpopularity of such measures, it seems that congress, if it acts at all, will have to do so through its ability to change public opinion. This means that hearings will need to be held, officials will need to be interrogated, lies will need to be unraveled, and the public needs to listen. This will happen, but it will take time. My prediction is that Bush will hold out against public opinion until it becomes abundantly clear that his party will lose if he does not act. That won't happen until 2008 because Bush is notoriously faith-based, not only when it comes to Iraq, but also when he is reading polls.

2:54 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

Sometimes, after I hear 100,000 (mostly liberal) pundits all saying the same thing, I stop and wonder if just because I agree with them most of the time, I should agree with them now, even though they're saying rather silly things. I'll stick to two major areas at the moment:

1) An immediate withdraw from Iraq does not seem to me at all to be the least of all evils. The reasons that people assert this tend to be either that (a) The alternative is worse, or/and (b) American troops are making the situation in Iraq worse. While (a) might be right, I don't see a single piece of evidence for (b). True, the American military was the initial cause of violent Sunni insurgent attacks, as well as some localized Shiite resistance. True, these Sunni attacks, soon turning on Shiites, produced the circle of violence that has begot this civil bedlam. However, at this point in time, there's little way to imagine how the 125,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq are NOT preventing massive genocide. We cannot withdraw the troops now. On this, I agree with the suggestions of the ISG.

2) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is indeed the cause of much ill-will and strife in the Middle East and elsewhere. However, to argue that solving this conflict is the first diplomatic step to solving Iraq is just wrong. The first time I heard this strange logic was in King Abdullah's interview with George Stephanopolous, in which he now famously warned of the three impending Middle East civil wars. The first thing that must be done to stop Lebanese Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites from killing each other, and Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other, is some kind of two-state solution in *Palestine.* Huh? Am I missing something here? I can understand how maybe if the U.S. shows an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict then maybe they'll have more success at the bargaining table with Iraq and Syria. But these are all quite debatable assumptions, no where near certain enough to somehow persuade that Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents are thinking not about each other, but about their Palestinian "brothers" when they go off on their rampages. So, in this sense I disagree with the suggestions of the ISG.

From a policy standpoint, I agree, Scantron, that the ISG was met with a bit too much foaming at the mouth. But what else could you expect after such ineptitude for 4 years?

I myself do not consider the report a failure. I only wish that more serious consideration could have been given to the recommendations of the Biden-Gelb plan (, as well as to what Peter Galbraith has been writing about for several years now. Whether anyone likes it or not, Iraq has been partitioning itself for years now. Somewhere around 10,000 Iraqis move each week to escape the sectarian violence--meaning that every year, a likely 2-5% of the population is going to move to a more homogenous region of Iraq. It won't take many more years for this ethnic balkanization to obtain a level where such a partition need not be as ugly as the Indian subcontinental one. (As for the multiethnic Baghdad, the plan calls for it being declared a federal city, with peacekeepers, political settlements, all the rest.) A federalized system with a central government to deal with oil revenue and foreign policy just seems like the best shot Iraq's got; and the point is, we're not too far away from such a reality to begin with.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Responding in reverse order:

Robot, I think you point to a false choice in the area of troop withdrawal. Hardly anyone is advocating this besides Murtha. Instead, what I decry is the lack of a definitive timetable for withdrawal--not an immediate withdrawal, but a "phased" one, as the parlance goes. Conservatives mock the notion of phased withdrawal, redeployment, what have you, but at this point its just a meme and not a structured policy. Democrats continue to call for it WITHOUT saying when or how. This, as Austin points out, is in their best political interests to do, even if it is useless and simply deflects criticism. In other words: we don't need to get out now, immediately, full stop, but neither do we need to remain hesitant about what seems obviously necessary. Doing so will only empower Bush to keep troops in Iraq longer.

The Palestinian question, I agree, is not very helpful in the immediate circumstances. I don't think we should concentrate on it either. Nor do I think we should countenance Syria and Iran much; Bush made plain today that they will only be admitted to talks if they "agree to peaceful preconditions," which is what he's been saying all along (i.e. it will never happen). The secret is, as you say, our own internal reconstruction of Iraq's political structure, plus an emphasis on the role of our own troops. We're alone on this one.

Also, don't get me wrong: I'm not rebuking the abuse that's been heaped upon the ISG report. If anything, I think the Broderites and the consensus fetishists are wrong. Only a few people are really condemning the report in Washington, however, take John McCain from the R side, Feingold from the D. As I say in my original post, the difference between them (who are both rightfully angry at this vague document) is that McCain has no grasp on reality whereas Feingold seems to have every bit of understanding as to the true state of affairs.

The most important thing is to get the timetable for troop withdrawal settled and then encourage the hell out of it. I haven't decided yet if the Biden-Gelb plan is best; however, we must take the well-being of the Iraqis into the greatest account.

Austin, I think your sobering view is warranted, but ignores what progress has been made by willful actors. I used to think Republicans would never stray from Bush's party line; that has been proved wrong. I never thought that Rumsfeld would take the heat for the administration; that has been proved wrong too. Obviously, Bush is too delusional to be "swayed"--he has said that he will remain in Iraq even if only Laura and Barney were backing him up. However, his hand can be forced if not persuaded. If literally everyone else in Washington is against him, once all the McCains and National Review crazies have been silenced, he might have to do something about it. This is why encouragement is important; because it's possible. Write your congressperson an email--hell, write them one every day.

All of this, of course, is me stalling in the face of this polisci paper. Goddamn you Noziiiiiiiick!!

7:12 PM  

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