Monday, November 05, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Was I Wrong About the Surge?

It's been an eventful week: Pakistan suspended it's constitution, the October casualty numbers came in even lower than September, and the legality of waterboarding was a big issue at the confirmation hearings for Attorney-General-to-be Mukasey.

Did the Surge Work?
I have been a consistent skeptic about the Surge. More troops means more targets means more casualties -- that's how I thought it out, and until recently that's how it went: 1164 coalition troops died during the 12 months ending in August 2007, making it the bloodiest year of the war. Then 69 troops died in September and only 40 in October. To get a lower two-month total you have to go back to February-March of 2006. Iraqi civilian casualties also appear to be down. What does it mean?

I've been slow to jump to any conclusions. On the one hand, I pride myself on belonging to the reality-based community -- when the facts change, my ideas have to change, and when my predictions don't pan out I have to re-examine the logic behind them. On the other hand, this administration has fooled me before by using short-term trends to dismiss long-term problems. In the winter of 2001-2002, when the Taliban government fell so quickly and (apparently) easily in Afghanistan, without the millions of civilian casualties that some on the Left had been predicting, I started giving the Bush people the benefit of the doubt. I dismissed the early rumors about Guantanamo. I tried hard to believe the claims that the Iraq invasion would be similarly easy and quick and clean. I took the administration position in a number of online arguments that I'd happily deny if not for the existence of archives. It wasn't until late in the summer of 2002 -- sooner, apparently, than Democratic senators like Clinton and Edwards and Kerry -- that I started to realize I'd been had.

So I've been cautious. I started telling you about the new data in the last week of September, but I haven't been drawing any firm conclusions. Partly that's because I see myself as a middleman in the interpretation business. I write this column for intelligent people who don't have the time or inclination to sift through as much of the online information as I do. (If my fellow news junkies like it too, that's fine.) But I'm not a universal expert, so in any individual field I rely on people that I trust in the same way that I hope my readers will learn to trust me. And my suppliers haven't been coming through lately, so my stock of explanations has been dwindling.

Until this week. One of the people I trust for military matters is Phillip Carter of the blog Intel Dump. He attributes the recent good news to a convergence of many factors. One is the Surge. In an article in Slate, Carter observes: "Where we have sufficient troops to control the ground, violence is down. ... But where we don't have sufficient troops ... violence remains high." But even the increased number of American troops is far short of what would be necessary to control the whole country. (A friend in the military tells me that current counter-insurgency doctrine estimates the number of troops needed at about three times what we have in Iraq now.) So our troops have to try to influence and catalyze events on the ground, not control them. That's what happened in Anbar: a political opportunity presented itself, and we took advantage of it. The Sunni tribes did the heavy lifting, but a more-visible American presence played a role.

In Baghdad, though, "the most persuasive explanation for the good news is that the Shiites have won." In other words, the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad is more-or-less over, so the sectarian violence has faded. This observation fits with my lone data point, which is that the Iraqi blogger Riverbend and her family left Baghdad for Damascus a few months ago. In her latest report, Riverbend quotes an estimate that 1.5 million Iraqis are in Syria now, and reports "Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere." A big chunk of those folks are probably, like Riverbend, Sunnis from Baghdad.

One other important thing happened, apparently by coincidence: After an embarrassing clash between Shia factions in the holy city of Karbala at the end of August, Shia militia leader Muqtada al Sadr declared a six-month moratorium on military activities so that he could reorganize and presumably purge some of the loose cannons in his organization.

The longer-term picture has Carter worried. To the extent that the lull is due to the Surge, what will happen next summer, when we can't sustain this troop level any more? To the extent that it's due to ethnic cleansing, do we really want to extend that policy to the entire country? What happens when al-Sadr is done reorganizing? And after the Anbar Sunnis have dealt with Al Qaeda Iraq, will they start singing the Muslim equivalent of Kumbaya, or will they turn their new American weapons against the Shia central government, or against us?

The original idea of the Surge was to create a temporary calm during which the Iraqi factions could work out their differences and create a lasting peace. The calm is happening (despite my expectations), but the peace is still nowhere in sight. The question we have to ask is: What larger success story is the Surge supposed to be part of? I don't think it's the kind of success the American people are looking for, one where we get to declare victory at some point in the foreseeable future and bring our troops home. Instead, it's a more imperial version of success: Our troops have become more important than ever in the maintenance of order in Iraq, and maybe we can hope to pacify the country completely over the next ten or twenty years.

To sum up: We've been bleeding slower the last two months. Fewer dead Americans. Fewer dead Iraqis. Those are good things. But don't get carried away and think that everything is on track now. The Bush policy for Iraq has multiple layers of wrongness in it, and improving one layer doesn't mean that everything is going to be OK. I still want our troops home as fast as we can safely bring them out.

Pakistan: Pop Goes the Constitution
One reason the rest of the world doesn't believe all the American pro-democracy rhetoric is that we support military dictators like General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Since his first coup in 1999, Musharraf has allowed some of the trappings of democracy and the rule of law to re-appear. But Saturday he announced that he was suspending the Constitution and going back to one-man rule. Since 9/11, he has been one of our main allies in the War on Terror (at least on paper), and we've been content to let him restore democracy at his own pace. We've also been content, for reasons that escape me, to tolerate the Taliban and Al Qaeda having sanctuaries in Pakistan near the Afghan border.

OK, it makes no sense for me to try to compete with the major networks in covering a breaking story like this. But I will point you towards an information source you probably won't hear on ABC: Barnett Rubin of New York University, who is blogging the crisis from Islamabad via Juan Cole's Global Affairs. You can also look at the translated text of Musharraf's announcement -- and the video, if Urdu makes sense to you.

Rubin makes the following scary point: Musharraf's announcement echoes a lot of themes that you hear from the Bush administration. In particular, he claims to be declaring a state of emergency in order to protect Pakistan from terrorism and judicial activism -- as if those were comparable menaces. "Judicial activism" in this case means trying to hold the government accountable to the rule of law.

Rubin finds a similar linkage between judges and terrorists in the March 2005 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: “Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.” Scott Horton of Harper's comments: "In other words, turning to courts for the enforcement of legal rights, appeals to international tribunals, and terrorism are seen as the elements of a single consistent enemy strategy."

Musharraf takes a page from the Bush/Cheney media guide:
Let us look at law enforcement agencies. In my view, they are demoralized - especially in Islamabad. They have given up hope. Why? Because their officers are being punished ... Ten officers - including two Inspector Generals - are suspended or convicted. And so, we have a demoralized force with low morale, afraid to take any action.
The rule of law, in other words, emboldens the terrorists.

The Borowitz Report comments via the following satirical news article: President Bush flies to Islamabad to advise Musharraf on the best ways to eliminate democracy. Describing Musharraf's announcement suspending the Pakistani constitution as a "beginner's mistake," Bush tells Musharraf "you've got to be crafty about these things."

TPM Josh Marshall interviewed Dr. Rubin at some length. One thing Rubin points out is that all the bogus stuff the Bush administration said about Iraq is actually true about Pakistan: Bin Laden is there, and they have nuclear weapons.

Waterboarding: It's Torture
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee tried and failed to get Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey to say that waterboarding is torture. Apparently this is not enough to keep the Senate from approving his nomination, but at least it pushed the media into explaining what waterboarding is. Sunday a former military lawyer wrote Waterboarding Used to Be a Crime in the Washington Post. It's worth a read.

On the Balkinization blog, Sandy Levinson looks at one particularly insidious corruption of the public debate: People (like Rudy Giuliani) using ticking-time-bomb fantasies to claim that water-boarding is not torture, when in fact they are arguing that torture is justified. If you find yourself in such a conversation with a co-worker or relative or friend, don't let them fudge things this way. If they want to defend torture, they should defend torture, not claim that something isn't torture because we need to do it.

I watched a fair and balanced panel of torture advocates on Fox News this week, all of whom talked in ticking-time-bomb terms. This is one of those cases where even entering into the discussion is a mistake. Once you start doing a cost/benefit analysis of torture, discussing how much torture you'd be willing to do for how much information, you've abandoned the idea that there's a moral principle here. I am reminded of an old joke: A rich old man chats up a pretty young woman at a party and asks if she'd sleep with him for a million dollars. She blushes and admits that yes, she probably would. Then he asks whether she'd sleep with him for five dollars, and she's insulted. "What kind of woman do you think I am?" she asks. And he answers: "We've already established that. Now we're just dickering over the price."

What To Read When You're Sick
I had a cold this week, with just enough of a fever to make any serious reading futile. So rather than tell you about a political or military or historical book, I'll give my recommendation for what to read the next time you're sick: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman.

There's an old joke about old jokes: A group of people -- inmates, sailors on a long voyage, old guys who have been hanging around in the same bar forever, it varies from one telling to the next -- have been repeating the same jokes so often that they've all been written down and numbered. Rather than tell the joke, you just have to stand up and announce the number. (The punch line is that the new guy announces a number and nobody laughs. "That joke's hard to tell right," his friend explains.)

Well, maybe twenty years ago somebody -- probably Alan Moore, but I'm not completely sure -- realized that superhero stories had reached the same point. There are only so many viable powers and weaknesses, so many ways to explain where the powers come from, so many ways that the hero and the villain can relate to each other, and so on. You don't really even have to tell the story any more, you can just indicate which story this is. Now, as a writer you can fight this truth and struggle for any small innovation -- what would chartreuse kryptonite do? -- or you can run with it and have a lot of fun. If you just let the archetypes be archetypes and don't bother to innovate, the standard superhero universe becomes a rich and easily invoked background on which you can paint whatever you want.

In comic books, the best versions of this kind of story-telling are Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Alan Moore's Top Ten. Well, Soon I Will Be Invincible brings this style to novels. The book doesn't contain any character you've heard of, and yet everyone in it is extremely familiar. So, one of the two narrators is afflicted with Malign Hypercognition Disorder -- he's a evil genius. Most of his life has been spent on a series of nearly-successful attempts to take over the world. The other is a young woman who suffered a catastrophic accident and had most of her body parts replaced with super-powered machinery. She is the newest and most insecure member of the Champions, the world's greatest team of heroes. Don't you almost know them already?

That's the point. Everything happens inside a dense web of archetypal plots and relationships you already know. So the narrators can give you all kinds of backstory in just a couple of lines. For example, Doctor Impossible (the evil genius) concludes the story about how he met his ex-girlfriend (at a failed attempt to organize a team of super-villains) with this: "So the Legion never materialized as such, although a few of the robots later came back as the Machine Intelligence Coalition, which I guess still has its asteroid somewhere." That covers a lot of ground for one sentence, but how much more detail do you really need? It's Situation #47.

Short Notes
Max Blumenthal continues to attend right-wing conventions so that you don't have to. Check out his video Theocracy Now, in which he covers the Values Voters Summit in late October.

The week's best graphic comes from Daily Kos blogger Dreaminonempty, who assembles state-by-state polls on President Bush's approval rating and comes to the conclusion (now that Bush approval in Utah has fallen below 50%) that there are no red states.

Faking the news is harder than it looks. Slate V ran a competition for the best amateur news parodies, and the top five are here. They're fun, but the Daily Show has nothing to worry about.

Washington Monthly did a long article about Giuliani's Cheney-like view of executive power.

Studs Terkel explains why the telephone companies shouldn't get amnesty for their participation in warrantless wiretapping.


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