Monday, September 17, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Iraq Week

This week was Iraq Week. Petraeus testified, everybody in the world commented, and then President Bush gave a speech magnanimously accepting the recommendations that he had hand-picked General Petraeus to make. This Mike Luckovich cartoon pretty much captures it.

Real People in Harm's Way
Much of the debate has been about whether or not General Petraeus cooked the books in the statistics he used to claim that the Surge is working. (I think he did.) But one reason we focus so much on statistics is that so many Americans have no direct connection either to our troops or to the Iraqis. As Philip Carter says on Intel Dump: "The burden of today's war is heavy, but it is not wide." We don't know the people who are dying, and the financial burden of the war is being passed on to our grandchildren -- who cares about them? -- so we talk about numbers. And some of us make callous comments like this. (Me? I have one friend and no close relatives in the military. My friend is stateside right now. And my taxes are lower than they were at the beginning of the war.)

A couple of the things I ran across this week at least reminded me of the real people in harm's way. First, a few weeks ago I linked to a New York Times op-ed written by seven soldiers in Iraq. It was called "The War as We Saw It" and it gave a profoundly less optimistic view than General Petraeus. Well, two of those guys are dead. Their unit was close to finishing its 15-month rotation, but they didn't make it.

Second, for years a young woman from Baghdad has written a blog called Baghdad Burning under the pseudonym Riverbend. She is a wonderful writer and observer. A lot of us in the blogosphere feel like we know her, even though we wouldn't recognize her in person. In some ways it's been as good (and as bad) as having a friend right there on the ground in Baghdad telling us how things look from the civilian point of view. Whenever there was a long gap between posts, the Internet would buzz with worry: Was Riverbend OK? If she died, how would we know?

Well, recently we got the good/bad news that Riverbend and her family have escaped to Syria. They're Sunnis, and they had been living in one of those walled-up neighborhoods that are either fortresses or gulags, depending on your point of view. They're safe now, but Riverbend has no idea whether she'll ever see her relatives and friends again, or if Baghdad will ever be safe to visit. The story of her escape is emotional and well worth reading. If you've never heard of Riverbend before, read a few pieces from the Baghdad Burning archives to get acquainted. Try this one or go back to 2003. (The earlier you go, the less bitter she sounds.)

Her story puts a personal face on the statistic that something like 4 million Iraqis are now refugees -- about half in Syria or Jordan or Iran and the other half somewhere inside Iraq. (I imagine that a lot of Baghdad Sunnis and Shia are now living with relatives in their tribal homelands.) That's from a pre-war population of about 27 million. Do the math; it's horrifying. It puts a different slant on Petraeus' testimony that some previously violent Baghdad neighborhoods are now "quiet". It also gives the strongest possible rebuke to the administration's frequently repeated claim that 50 million Iraqis and Afghanis "are free now" -- and to the rhetoric about bringing "freedom" to Iran. The Iraqis are so free now that hundreds of thousands of them -- not wild-eyed Islamist extremists, but educated westernized young women like Riverbend -- would rather leave everything they've ever known and live under dictatorship in Syria. Think hard about that.

And if you want a young woman's view of life in Iran, pick up the book Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni. My favorite Afghan book is a little out of date now, but Come Back to Afghanistan is a good read. Both books succeed in making their countries more three-dimensional to us distant Americans.

Creative Responses
If you'd rather laugh than cry about the whole Surge hoopla, check out this video that reviews the Surge as if it were a movie. ("What's up with that Iran subplot?" a woman-on-the-street asks, and her date responds: "They're just setting up a sequel.") Or this video that advertises the Surge like a product. (The Surge-as-detergent segment has a fast-talking disclaimer: "Appearance of cleanliness may simply mask the foul stench of corruption.")

And if you'd rather just be distracted, watch this video of what a bench-clearing brawl looks like on the baseball fields of South Korea. But don't ask me to explain what they're doing.

About That Speech
Fred Kaplan did a good job taking Bush's speech apart on Slate. Kaplan's key point:
Let's be clear one more time about this claim: The surge of five extra combat brigades (bringing the total from 15 to 20) started in January. Their 15-month tours of duty will begin to expire next April. The Army and Marines have no combat units ready to replace them. The service chiefs refuse to extend the tours any further. The president refuses to mobilize the reserves any further. And so, the surge will be over by next July. This has been understood from the outset. It is the result of simple arithmetic, not of anyone's decision, much less some putative success.
Philip Carter (an Iraq war veteran who writes the blog Intel Dump ) called the speech "an effort to put lipstick, mascara, and a pound or two of pancake makeup on a really ugly pig."

James Fallows of The Atlantic, who has been in Asia for some while now, wrote a column giving what he calls the man from Mars view of Bush's speech and the responses to it. About John Edwards, who bought TV time to answer Bush with this statement, Fallows comments: "How long has John Edwards been sounding like this? Wow!"

Other Voices
David Enders at In These Times explains Why Iraq Is Getting Worse. He writes this from Najaf, where the civil war is not between Sunni and Shia, but between different factions of Shia. If you're watching Fox News, you might as well watch Al Jazeera too. Here's what they're saying. (Is it just me, or do they sound more reasonable?) One issue I didn't hear in General Petraeus testimony: the cholera epidemic in northern Iraq. George Packer has an article in The New Yorker asking the questions that we really ought to be focusing on: How are we going to pull out of Iraq? What will happen when we do? Post Global, which seems to be a joint effort of the Washington Post and Newsweek, identifies the following mid-range trend: the Iraq War is responsible for a major decline in the United States' ability to lead the world.

Greenspan Jumps From the Sinking Ship
This week former Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan joined the long list of conservatives who now claim they never really supported what President Bush was doing. Paul Krugman points out that this is all nonsense: Like all the other ship-jumpers, Greenspan supported Bush when it counted, back when he was cutting taxes for the rich and ignoring the deficit.

In retrospect, Mr. Greenspan’s moral collapse in 2001 was a portent. It foreshadowed the way many people in the foreign policy community would put their critical faculties on hold and support the invasion of Iraq, despite ample evidence that it was a really bad idea. And like enthusiastic war supporters who have started describing themselves as war critics now that the Iraq venture has gone wrong, Mr. Greenspan has started portraying himself as a critic of administration fiscal irresponsibility now that President Bush has become deeply unpopular and Democrats control Congress.

Glenn Greenwald was already compiling a list of dishonest ship-jumpers back in June. Add Alan to the list. Can no one on the Right just say: "I was wrong"?

Gonzales Replacement
Today it has been announced that Judge Michael Mukasey will be nominated to be the new attorney general. Lest you imagine that the liberal blogosphere is knee-jerk anti-Bush, Glenn Greenwald supports Mukasey.


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