Friday, April 11, 2008

On "Frontline" and the Front Lines

(orig posted 4/4/08, on MySpace)

A buddy of mine recently recommended that I watch a PBS "Frontline" special with the dismally unsurprising title of "Bush’s War." As it happened, I had previously read a review of that special, which allowed me to spare myself the 4+ hours of tooth-grinding agita which would doubtless have ensued had I subjected myself to it.

In the comments section of that review, I dropped a couple of posts in response to the baiting of a rather hostile commenter (I know, I shouldn’t allow myself to be drawn in..but I think I stayed polite). On re-reading them, I thought they laid out some important arguments with sufficient clarity that they might prove useful as a blog entry. So, here they are (obviously, I’m "Noocyte")...


Where are the neocon apologists? Are you just not there or afraid to engage in thoughtful debate?

Mar 28, 2008 - 10:09 pm


dph; Point of order: Name-calling and ideological baiting are not customarily regarded as especially enticing invitations to "thoughtful debate."

In a very small nutshell, the main strategic task which faced the US after 9/11 was to put pressure on the feeder streams of global Jihad, to engage those in the Muslim world who abetted or at least tolerated the virulent and violent strain of takfiri Islamism which had struck us, and to induce them to change their behavior.

Clearly the main source of the Jihadi ideology and resource stream lay in Saudi Arabia, and its ruling clan’s Saitan’s bargain with the Wahhabi clerics and operatives which exported Jihadism abroad. Unfortunately, even leaving aside the devastating effects of military action in SA on the global petroleum markets, the simple fact is that if a bunch of kufirs put boots on the sands of the land of the Two Holy Cities, then we could expect a global Islamic rising the likes of which we can only imagine in our most dreadful nightmares.

Saddam’s Iraq was a pestilence waiting to be unleashed on the world as soon as the sanctions regime fell. Something was going to have to be done about it sooner or later. In addition to this, a bold system perturbation in the heart of the ancient Caliphate would send a message to the Saudis without the need to strike directly. This was the main justification for toppling the Baathist regime, and the fact that it was commonly accepted that Saddam had WMD provided a far more palatable proximate cause for action, regardless of how (apparently) unfounded those near-universal estimates turned out to be.

Shortly after the fall of Saddam’s Baghdad, the Saudis ramped up their anti-terror cooperation, Libya abandoned its nuclear program, and Iran apparently shelved its nuclear weaponization programs (ed. though likely only temporarily...). Also, Lebanon expelled its Syrian military controllers, and a raft of pro-democracy movements appeared worldwide. Jihadis, shamed by the rapid conquest of Iraq, swarmed into Mesopotamia to oppose us, and were thus forced to fight at a time and place of our choosing. The fact that the guerrilla nature of that conflict was so very badly misread by Rummy’s model of post-invasion Iraq does not invalidate the initial strategy any more than the myriad tactical and strategic blunders throughout WW2 invalidated its central goals.

The prospect of a stabilized, democratic Iraq (albeit clamorous and spasmodic in its birth-pangs) is making totalitarian regimes worldwide (and most particularly those with an Islamist bent) VERY nervous. This is a good thing, even if their efforts to make the project fail will cost much and bring much misery. Those whose actions or inaction would embolden these regimes (and the violent non-state actors which they employ) miss the point, to the peril of us all.

Documentaries like this present the opportunity to engage in dialog on matters of the utmost importance. It is when they degenerate into partisan polemics that we lose out on the fleshing out of these crucial narratives. Both sides have important points to make, but if this continues to be seen as a bitter zero-sum shouting match, the only beneficiaries will be our foes.

Mar 29, 2008 - 9:56 pm



Thanks for rising to the rhetorical bait! I was frustrated by the failure of the you neocons to respond and my intent was to start the dialog that you have begun.

Thank you!

My problem with your argument is that the attack on the US on 9/11 was done by an obscure but very dedicate and well disciplined group of terrorists with absolutely not relationship to Iraq. Cheney, Rumsfield, et al were looking for a reason to attack Iraq long before the 9/11 as a way to forcing "democracy" on a recalcitrant Mid East regime. The Bush invasion of Iraq was not a response to 9/11 but rather 9/11 was an excuse to play out neocon fantasies - particularly replaying Viet Nam and ending in a "vistory".

Anyone with knowledge of the history of Iraq and what actually happened in Viet Nam knew from the beginning that this would end in failure, as it has.

Trying to explain the neocon response to 9/11 as "a bold system perturbation in the heart of the ancient Caliphate" is sophistry.

Did we need to make a response? Absolutely!!

But what we needed was a multidimensional response that rooted out the problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan and an adherence to our basic values.

Torture, special rendition, suspension of basic human rights, etc. only played into those who oppose us. There is real strength in ideas, something stronger than pure military might. And Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield, et al didn’t understand that and have thus failed us.

Mar 30, 2008 - 10:30 am


dph: "Thanks for rising to the rhetorical bait! I was frustrated by the failure of the you neocons to respond and my intent was to start the dialog that you have begun."

I’m fairly new here, having followed Ed Morrisey over from the late, lamented Captain’s Quarters blog, like a Grateful Dead fan on the first leg of a Phish tour. I don’t know if it will be worth it to make this reply, but I will have a go at it. The opening of your response is the sort of taunt which implies that having initially engaged your response, I have already lost face. It carries the implicit assumption that you have nothing to learn from me and that I am incapable of absorbing anything you have to say. How inclined would you be to discuss anything with someone who approached you thus?

dph: "The Bush invasion of Iraq was not a response to 9/11 but rather 9/11 was an excuse to play out neocon fantasies - particularly replaying Viet Nam and ending in a ’vistory’." [sic]

Prior to 9/11, the idea of toppling Saddam had little to do with Spreading Democracy; Bush’s stance during his campaign was that of a much more modest, "realist" foreign policy. Saddam was a demonstrably destabilizing force in the region, and thus, from a realist position (which is, after all, about preserving stability) would have had to go, soon or late.

"Neocons" (an increasingly ill-used term which originally referred to Liberals who adopted a more proactive approach to the promotion of Liberal ideas and ideals abroad) had very little place at the table during the early Bush administration (recall that it was Cheney, as SecDef under Bush 41, who had left Saddam in power after Gulf War 1). It was only after 9/11 that their ideas were judged to have the highest probability of success in attacking the roots of Islamist terrorism, and that the liberation of Iraq emerged as a vital theater of operations in that larger endeavor. With respect, you are unduly conflating the two broad rationales for unseating Saddam’s regime, and it is skewing your narrative.

You see, the group that attacked us on 9/11 was *not* an "obscure" group at all. Would that they had been! In point of fact, they were the pointed end of a very long spear whose shaft stretched through much of the Muslim world. Now, the vast majority of Muslims were not pushing that shaft along. A fair number were doubtless trying to hold it back…at the risk of some nasty burns and splinters. An uncomfortably large number, however, were letting it slide on by. The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt (the sources of most of the 9/11 hijackers) were only too content to preserve their purchase on power by allowing their disaffected and radicalized youths to direct their rage toward the West, and felt (with good historical reason) that they could continue to do so with relative impunity.

Thus the previously Stability-minded Bush administration was placed in the ungainly position of deliberately and decisively destabilizing the calcified and festering status quo of the Arab Muslim world, such that it could lurch back into motion. Hopefully in a direction which would prove less hospitable to radical Jihadism. There is much sophistry on both sides of this question, to be sure…but the underlying strategy is very much as I described it: a system perturbation (h/t to Thomas Barnett for that formulation, BTW) with an eye toward second-order change. Simple tweaking simply would not do, as we had seen over and over again.

Your allusion to Viet Nam is a fascinating one, and could provide fodder for a MUCH longer response. Suffice it to say that it is both a better and worse analogy than I suspect you suspect. If you like, I propose that you look into the differences between Gen. Westmoreland’s and Gen. Abrams’ approaches to the war in SE Asia. You may find it edifying reading.

dph: "Did we need to make a response? Absolutely!!

But what we needed was a multidimensional response that rooted out the problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan and an adherence to our basic values."

Here we are very much in agreement. Given the deep and systemic socio-cultural dis-ease which so pervades so much of the Muslim world, and the aggressive metastases which it spawned, it is incumbent on us to use every level of our civilization to combat its spread (much as we did to defeat Soviet Communism in the last century). Warfare without diplomacy without covert operations without economic engagement without theological discourse without cultural cross-fertilization….is doomed to fall short of the mark. Our "basic values" are arguably our chief weapons in the Long War we now fight, for it is those values of pluralism, popular rule, open trade, gender equality, and individual liberty whose absence in the Muslim world has so hobbled its ability to keep pace with the societies whose energy it so sadly ironically provides.

It may surprise you to read that I agree that a vigorous debate should take place on the limits of acceptable tactics we should employ in the fighting and holding and interrogating of our enemies. War is not for the squeamish, and our foes are most adroit at manipulating our humanity for the sake of an asymmetric advantage. However, at the same time that we must project strength and resolve to enemies who very publicly bank on our weakness, we must also recognize that a major part of how we will win this Long War is by communicating to the Muslim world that there are alternatives beyond the Strongman/Caliph duality they have been fed.

Still, we must not forget that we are up against a civilization which is based on a shame/face model of honor and which respects strength and fortitude on almost an equal footing with piety. If we take too many tools out of our belt in the gathering and utilization of intelligence, then we will signal actionable irresoluteness and weakness to those who would exploit it. This will not be lost on the great mass of Muslims who are deciding whether or not to take hold of that spear (and whether to push forward or pull back if they do!).

Again, a long-format documentary would have been an ideal format for the thoughtful and comprehensive engagement of these questions. It is a pity that — yet again — that opportunity was missed by those who believe their interpretations to be foregone conclusions and their opponents to be deluded or malicious. In a democracy, there really is no greater danger.

Pardon the dissertation, but you *did* (ostensibly) ask for a thoughtful discussion.

Mar 30, 2008 - 7:56 pm

I don’t want to make too much of the fact that "dph" never returned to respond; blog comment threads have a rather short shelf life, and this one was already a few days old.

Or maybe he/she/it was prompted by my thoughts to dig deeply into alternate sources of information and subject his/her/its ingrained assumptions to an intensive scrutiny. I hope that, even as I write these words, "dph" is by-passing the pre-digested output of the MSM, examining primary source material, digging into the publications of think tanks on the left, right, and center, scanning multiple blogs, reading government reports and open-source intelligence data, possibly resulting in an enhanced and somewhat (or profoundly) revised perspective on Geopolitics in the 21st Century.

Oh, wait. That’s what I did, almost four years ago. Still, a fellow can dream.

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