Thursday, July 31, 2008

The New Yorker, thy name is Yankee Doodle

[by Mr.Hengist]

Think Progress has an EXCLUSIVE! Seymour Hersh wrote an article in The New Yorker in which he claims that VPOTUS Cheney considered a proposal to... No, wait, I won't spoil it, just read go read it after you've put down your beer. And, yes, this is so an EXCLUSIVE for Think Progress - they hit the web with it before The Nation, The Progressive, and Utne Reader could read the article for themselves and go squirrely. At any rate, it's The New Yorker which put a feather in it's cap (and called it Macaroni).

Doesn't it almost give you a wistful longing for the Cold War?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Indian Country (UPDATED)

Recent horrifying bomb attacks in India have brought further to the fore the long-festering tensions between India and Pakistan. These attacks, whose level of brutal sophistication suggest capabilities beyond those of the home-grown Indian extremist groups who have unconvincingly claimed "credit," bear distinct traces of the sorts of tactics employed by Salafist Jihadi groups like al Qaeda. There are strong indications of naan-crumbs leading to Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In his invaluable book, America's Secret War, George Friedman of Stratfor described some of the tactics quietly employed by the US in the wake of 9/11/01 to bring Pakistan and its nukes to heel. These involved enhanced relations with India, Pakistan's mortal enemy and erstwhile American co-pariah (for their illicitly developed nuclear weapons programs). Islamabad was served notice that it had better play ball with the US in its war on Jihadi extremism, lest the US lend its greater support to New Delhi. You may recall the news stories in 2001-2002 about the potential nuclear standoff between the two nations over the disputed territories of Kashmir. Once Pervez Musharref stepped up and declared himself an ally of the US in its efforts (however erratic that alliance later proved itself to be), those stories seemed to drop off the radar screen in fairly short order. It seemed that the message had been received.

Recently, however, the Pakistani government, military, and Intelligence services have been behaving in such a way as to indicate the need for a refresher course on the consequences of hindering our efforts to interdict and defeat Islamist extremists in their rugged backyard. It is bad enough that Islamabad has been cutting wafer-thin deals left right and center with the Taliban and AQ on its border with Afghanistan. For there to be evidence (or even just a perception) that it is permitting or abetting interference and mayhem within the borders of the world's largest democracy may be a bridge too far:

The recent bomb attacks come at a time when the Pakistan-India peace process is under strain. Amid one of the sharpest exchanges between the neighbors since they launched peace talks in 2004, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said that "elements" in Pakistan were behind a resurgence in militant activities, including the recent bomb attack at the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 58 people, including two Indian diplomats.

"There have been statements by leaders of Pakistan, inciting terror," Mr. Menon said. "There are such statements from some government officials and this incitement of violence has culminated in suicide blasts.... All investigations point to Pakistan being behind the blast."

Into this mix, I submit that one might legitimately throw the fact of the latest iteration in the on-going regularization of relations between Washington and New Delhi on the matter of nuclear technology. While there are legitimate concerns about this set of agreements from the standpoint of non-proliferation, it is difficult to argue that India would be a less or even equally-reliable partner than Pakistan in civil and military nuclear tech. Given the growing economic, political, and, yes, military prominence of India in the region, there is much to be gained in its own right from bringing them out from the cold with respect to their nukes.

But the opportunity to put the screws back into Pakistan can very defensibly be posited as a sub rosa motivation for this deal at this time. It is the sort of subtle, back-channel gamesmanship which has characterized the better moments of this Administration's dealings abroad, and which contrasts so very sharply with the shallow, counterproductively public broadsides from the likes of Barack Obama. For someone like the latter, for whom the primacy of Diplomacy is such a cherished priority, this kind of shrill sabre-rattling is worthy of note for the degree to which it undermines our efforts (by triggering a truculent counter-posture), while failing to present the kind of credible yet deniable pressure which really gets things done while saving face for those whose energies we wish to coopt.

If I am right, and this deal with India is part of a larger pattern of putting much-needed pressure on Pakistan, then it is the kind of win-win which results when grown-ups are engaged in the business of geopolitics.

One can only hope that the Pooh-bear isn't put in charge of guarding the picnic-basket.

(edited for embarrassingly long-unnoticed typo in last sentence ["one" for "once"]).

UPDATE: On re-reading this post, it occurred to me that I presented both the STRATFOR analysis and my own extrapolation of it in rather too definitive terms. So, let me get out ahead of potential valid criticisms and emphasize that, as with much of the business of intelligence work (governmental and private) there is a certain amount of tea leaf reading involved. You take the open-source information, draw connections and fashion narratives, and watch the unfolding of events for signs that they continue to fit the emerging data. The answer to the question of whether the above-mentioned machinations viz India and Pakistan were a deliberate strategem lies well outside of my (alas, non-existent) pay grade and security clearance. As for the proprietary analytical methods and sources employed by STRATFOR, I cannot speak with anything resembling authority. They have gotten some things pretty glaringly wrong in the past. In this case, however, the narrative hangs together pretty convincingly and continues to track with emerging data set in ways which continue to inspire confidence. Readers of these pages may take from this what they see fit, and subject it to what challenges they deem appropriate. For me, I continue to see it as a relatively robust formulation.

As ever, your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COIN Chameleon

Via the WSJ comes this very thought-provoking editorial by Ann Marlowe, about the perils of assuming that the precise set of COIN tactics which have all-but prevailed in Iraq can be transplanted to Afghanistan with any expectation of similar results. It's a lovely, tight little piece which I hope is widely read (or is based on widely-known ideas). For example:

Afghanistan's problems are not the same as Iraq's. Its people aren't recovering from a brutal, all-controlling tyranny, but from decades of chaos and centuries of bad government. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is largely illiterate and has a relatively undeveloped civil society. Afghan society still centers around the family and, for men, the mosque. Its society and traditions are still largely intact, in contrast to Iraq's fractured, urbanized and half-modernized population.
As I have previously written, Counterinsurgency (COIN) is a very subtle bit of business, the very essence of adaptability and flexibility. The core of it is a detailed understanding of the host nation's population dynamics and threat/asset profiles, guided by a warrior sociologist's study, analysis, intelligence (in both senses of the word), and real-time intuition.

Some might claim that the success of the COIN doctrine in Iraq was a too-good-to-be-true confluence of historical and socio-cultural factors which made Iraq atypically ripe for successful application of the Petraeus/Nagl/Odierno style of COIN operations. Alternately, one might argue that the demonstrable success of that style of operations in Iraq means that it can be successfully exported to other AOs with little change (as Obama and his people seem to be suggesting). Both of these analyses would be shallow and unhelpful.

Arguing that Iraq was uniquely well-suited for COIN ops is like arguing that the distance of the Earth from the Sun is uniquely well-suited for the emergence of life. The argument dissolves in a puff of tautology on even a casual examination: In both instances, the setting and the set emerge together, and artificially parsing them into cause and effect is an exercise in intellectual laziness. The particular type of COIN theory which emerged to handle the situation in Iraq looks as it did, beyond general parameters, because it was designed for Iraq. Before the Coalition arrived, Iraq existed, with all of its alliances and fractures and subtle loyalties and resentments. It was these dynamics which informed the design of the particular applications of COIN doctrine, just as that doctrine evolved together with the dynamics which it influenced. Similarly, although the distance from the Sun has remained more-or-less constant (though solar output has varied over time...), and formed the initial conditions for life to emerge (i.e., allowing liquid water to be stable on the surface), that life has also acted to regulate the conditions on the planet to maintain a homeostatic balance which continues to be favorable to life. To suggest that the success of the Surge was a matter of blind luck as to the conditions in Iraq is akin to arguing that the uncanny suitability of the Earth for organic life must be evidence of Intelligent Design.

Of course, as Marlowe's editorial proposes, it is equally foolish to assume that the particular constellation of force structures and tactical configurations which worked in Iraq could have 'scalable' results in Afghanistan. The primacy of the tribal (or even 'lower')-level social unit, coupled with the geographical and ethno-social isolation of widely-distributed sub-groups in almost extraterrestrially remote and rugged terrain militates against the kinds of urban-level operational philosophy which took root so relatively readily in post-Saddam Iraq. Further, the very active and destabilizing effects of the Pakistani military and intelligence machinery in abetting a relatively thriving Taliban/AQ presence, safe across the border within a beleaguered, nuclear-armed, twitchily sovereign nation defies any facile comparisons with even Iran. For Obama to continually carp on the idea that he can graft the relatively heavy force-footprint model of COIN operations which worked for Iraq onto Afghanistan smacks of the sort of shallow, opportunistic "me-too-ism" which so typifies his foreign policy style, particularly with regard to military matters.

The simple point is that a species of COIN strategy does need to be applied to Afghanistan...but it must arise out of a careful synthesis of multiple, far-flung threads of data and wisdom pertaining specifically to Afghanistan, where it will shift its shape into something more adapted to its surroundings. When it comes to COIN, this is a feature, not a bug:

Counterinsurgency is not one-size-fits-all. While there are best practices, they must be applied in a nuanced way. In poorly governed countries where insurgencies are likely to arise, the solution may vary from valley to valley.

It shouldn't be hard to see that adding men, helicopters or projects is not always the solution. But then, a would-be commander in chief who announces his prescription for Afghanistan before setting foot there has a lot to learn about America's top job.

Of course, for Obama to pontificate about what sorts of strategies and tactics should best be applied within Afghanistan is revelaed to be an even sillier exercise when one remembers that the head of CENTCOM, within whose Area of Responsibility (AoR) lies Afghanistan, is none other than David Petraeus himself. Talk about teaching your grandmother to suck eggs! For Obama to pose for the cameras as a man standing boldly ahead of the curve on the application of a policy he less-than-presciently opposed, and presume to dictate to one of that policy's chief authors is the very height of chutzpah.

The complexity of the tasks which await us in the Af-Pak theater is simply too daunting to entrust to strutting greenhorns and shallow thinkers.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Rolling Stone Gathers More Than Just Moss (In Other News, Dog Bites Man)

Today I looked in my In box and found a message from a good friend, with the subject line: "FW: Excellent Article." As usual, I took a deep breath and braced for the worst. A quite intelligent fellow, whom I love like a brother (with all that that entails!), he is nonetheless camped pretty securely on the port side of the ship of state, so I have resigned myself to sifting through intermittent Progressive polemics I might otherwise scan and discard (my friends almost always get the benefit of the doubt...only fair, given how patiently they tend to listen to my dextrospheric diatribes). Generally, I find something I can identify as good [enough] sense, which at the very least forces me to unpack and revisit sets of assumptions which might otherwise go unexamined (always a healthy exercise).

Then there was this article from Rolling Stone (where I always go for hard-hitting political analysis).

It was far, far, far worse than I could possibly have imagined. And, like Han Solo, I can imagine quite a bit. By way of illustration, I present the 'satirical cartoon' which accompanied the editorial emesis in question:

Never mind the simply nauseating racial stereotyping (though I find it curious that so much of the obsession with race seems to come not from the Right but from those who are ostensibly all about transcending the bigotries of the past). Never mind the infantile caricaturing of political opponents. Never mind the dismissive and disrespectful treatment of a man's distinguished military record (which, for all the posturing about "supporting the troops" is, after all, de rigeur for so many on the Left). It's the sheer repellent callousness with which the almost unimaginable suffering which McCain experienced at the bloody hands of the North Vietnamese is tossed off as though it were a mere political wiffle-ball.

And we haven't even gotten to the text yet.

I simply lack the energy to do a proper block-quoted, point-by-point fisking of this toxic train-wreck. I would simply ask that the reader pay attention to a few key concepts as they slog through it.

Note the pervasive and pernicious elitism and condescension which permeates it like swamp gas, the repeated references to variations on the "slack-jawed yokel" motif. Try, if you will, to reconcile this with the putative populism which is supposed to underlie the Democratic message. Note also the way a snippet of an interview with some less-than-enlightened "sweet-looking old ladies" (who are not even denizens of "the darkened plains of Montana and South Dakota," or "backwoods South Carolina," or some such benighted place) is interjected apparently as a stand-in for the views of McCain supporters in general. Here's a neat trick: How about I write an article about Obama, and let interviews with this crowd (NSFW) stand in for what I will portray as the mainstream of his supporters. That would be fair, yes?

Pay attention to the number of times some racial broadside is shoe-horned into the text. Try a thought experiment: Imagine if the words "a Negro intellectual from Harvard who's never served in the military" had appeared in the pages of The National Review. Imagine the comment threads over at the Huffington Post over that one!

Notice the offhand reference to the "mean-ass hate-radio conservatism of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh." The implication here seems to be that the complacency of Liberals was instrumental in allowing those Venal Right-Wing Haters to gobble up the airwaves so they can whip up the Brownshirts against the slumbering forces of decency. Hogwash. Liberal ideas were simply unable to garner the market share on the languishing AM band by attracting listeners and sponsors the way Conservative shows were (and are) able to do (just ask Air America's accountants). Instead, those who hunger for "Progressive" voices to bring those Right-Wingers to heel have to pin their hopes on the return of the almost-laughably misnamed "Fairness Doctrine," and the Carthaginian peace it would bring to political discourse on the airwaves.

Notice how McCain is mocked for allegedly "going dumb and courting the same talk-radio demographic that used to despise him." So, then, after many years of developing a reputation for reaching across the aisle and irritating the Conservative wing of the GOP by his "Maverick" positions (a far more impressive track record of actual bipartisanship than Obama's history [such as it is] can boast...but I digress), he is reaching out to that bloc of citizens and reassuring them that he will represent their interests as well if elected. The bastard! Actually, this is one of the precious few points on which the Rolling Stone editorial is not completely nonsensical. McCain has adjusted his positions on several issues over time...and he has accounted for all of those changes:

  • On the Bush tax cuts, he saw that they had achieved what they were intended to do, galvanizing the dynamism of the US economy after the potentially catastrophic effects of 9/11 on a sluggish post-dot-com situation (but he continues to quite rightly blast the GOP for not reining in spending commensurately...which was one of his main objections to the cuts in the first place), so now he wants those tax cuts preserved, and a greater emphasis on fiscal discipline.
  • On immigration reform, he has shifted the emphasis from creating a non-amnesty path to citizenship for illegal immigrants while securing the border; to securing the border, then creating a fair path to citizenship, in response to the withering stream of the harshest criticism from Conservatives. Anyone who thinks he has caved altogether on this issue and is now in the good graces of Immigration Hawks simply has not been reading some of the stuff that is still getting written about "Juan McCain."
  • McCain has always been an opponent of abortion. Indeed, this is one aspect of his candidacy with which I have struggled most; while I find abortion to be a grisly, tragic, grotesque, and morally repulsive affair, undertaken far too lightly and frequently for the very worst of reasons...I stop well short of being able to put my libertarian tendencies far enough to the side to feel that it should actually be banned. Still, as this Jan 2000 Salon article lays out, McCain's position on abortion for at least the better part of a decade has been markedly similar to that of Bush who, after almost 8 years (six of which were spent with majorities in Congress), has still managed to not return us to the days of wire hangers and back alleys. I'm not writing this to get into a debate about abortion, though, (please!) so much as to point out the vapidity of the Rolling Stone editorial's depiction of McCain as somehow having morphed into a rabid Anti-Choicer. It is yet another instance of the gross intellectual dishonesty with which this hit piece is riddled like profanity and brilliance in a George Carlin comedy routine.
So, yes, McCain has shifted his positions on a number of issues...but he has done so for reasons which he has articulated to the electorate, and with no attempt at revisionist history. Alas, his opponent has not shown the same willingness to show his work.

I must confess that these passages confused me:

And when it comes to Obama's and his wife's America-hating, well . . . McCain really doesn't need to say anything about that. All he needs to do to remind audiences of Reverend Wright and Michelle "I'm proud of America for the first time" Obama is to offer a few bons mots in the opposite direction. "I seek the office with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me," McCain likes to say. And while he doesn't believe he was anointed by God to lead the great nation of America, he insists, "I am her servant, first, last and always."

That's it — that's the entire argument. McCain is a canny enough old goat to know that the public's insatiable appetite for traitorous enemies will do the rest. He'll wave as many flags and stand in front of as many fucking fighter jets as you like, while the other guy lectures us about why he doesn't always need to wear a flag pin in his lapel and calls a bomb-throwing Sixties terrorist "a guy who lives in my neighborhood" instead of calling for his immediate beheading.

The author appears to be saying that McCain is graciously (some say foolishly) refraining from directly attacking Michelle Obama for her belated pride in the nation in which she has been able to achieve so much, or her husband's public struggles to pin down (har-har) the symbology of his own patriotism, or the implications of his affiliation with an unrepentant terrorist, focusing instead on his own affection and gratitude for that nation. Further, the implication appears to be that McCain is placing his trust in the American people to recognize when those who wish to lead them are not doing enough to "sell" them on their pride and devotion to its ideals and their opposition to those who stand for undermining its interests. So, this is supposed to be an attack on McCain?

From this point on, the editorial simply degenerates into the same old tired, ad hominem wank-fest of long-distance psychoanalyzing (blah-blah PTSD, yadda-yadda bitter Woodstock-envy...) which is the last refuge of those who are unable to mount a coherent argument based on issues. I would say that in this part the author just embarrasses himself...but it is clear that the capacity for self-reflection and critical thinking were not priorities for him from the get-go.

So, no, this does not qualify as anything even resembling an "excellent" article (unless one's intent is to so comprehensively discredit the seriousness of McCain's opponents as to indirectly burnish his credentials to lead...if that's the goal, then it is truly Most Triumphant). What it is is a sorry, slap-dash potty-mouthed playground hack job which allows name-calling and profanity to substitute for analysis, and tries to shame people into not noticing how utterly it fails to make anything resembling a coherent argument, by making them feel that anyone who was Clever and Sophisticated enough would see its murky premises as blindingly obvious.

I am not impressed.

Maliki "Timeline" Meme: Still Hasn't Timed Out (UPDATED)

Time is short, but I wanted to take the time to point out that the mistranslated call by Iraqi PM Maliki for a "Timetable" for American troops' withdrawal is still chugging along in overtime (was there any doubt that it would live on after being rebutted?). Then again, this is Reuters we're talking about.

Discussions of "general time horizons" are very different things from the sorts of arbitrary, inflexible "timetables" sought by opponents of seeking victory in Iraq. The former are practical descriptions of the conditions for phasing out an increasingly superfluous (which is to say, successful) American combat force. The latter are little more than instructions for how long the enemies of Iraq and the US need to bide their time before re-infiltrating and getting about the business of striving to undo the good we've done so far.

Out of time (and waiting for the retraction/correction.........................)

UPDATE: And from the gift that keeps on giving that is the Obama campaign, comes this little treasure from Gateway Pundit, showing how the "Timeline" gaffe has officially been embraced by The Enlightened One's minions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Iraqi Politics: Promise and Peril

On Sunday, AP Military writer Robert Burns commented on the state of the Iraqi military, and the encouraging as well as the concerning aspects of its increasing autonomy:

[Iraqi general, Wajih] Hameed's swagger sometimes grates on American officers. But Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond sees it as a hopeful sign the Iraqi army — generals and soldiers alike — has reached a new level of self-confidence, pointing the way toward truly independent Iraqi forces and, eventually, an exit for U.S. combat troops.

The flip side is that the Americans feel their control slipping away. This feeds a worry that Iraqi security forces either will set themselves up for a catastrophic failure or might even decide — at some point when the Americans largely have departed — that the country would be better off under military rule.

For now, the new assertiveness by generals such as Hameed, who commands all Iraqi soldiers in the western part of the capital, is welcomed.

I've found Burns' writing on Iraq to be generally better than average. His words of caution tend to be relatively on point, and markedly more moderate than that of many of his MSM peers, while his willingness to recognize progress where he sees it (even when it is, to say the least, unfashionable to do so) earn his words a serious look.

However, I was rather taken aback by his repeated intimations that the growing functionality and competence of the Iraqi military might somehow be a harbinger of a potential military coup in the making. This seems puzzlingly overheated to me, though it does appear to reflect the ambivalence which he notes among US military officers about the growing autonomy of the Iraqi military...the very autonomy for which we have been training it. I can't help but feel that this worry is a product of a wider uncertainty about our evolving role in the region: that is, away from a "Realist" reification of stability at all costs, and toward a deliberate (though selective) destabilization for the sake of promoting the emergence of institutions more conducive to interoperability with the globalized governments and economies of the West. The advantages of this in terms of de-legitimizing extremism and [re]kindling the potential dynamism of populations grown dangerously acculturated to generations of tyranny are obvious. The dangers, however, are just as evident. Once we have empowered a society to take the reins of its own destiny, as the Iraqis are showing growing signs of approaching readiness to do, then we have little choice but to step back, watch nervously as the beast bucks and lurches against those reins, and hope that the forces of order and lawfulness are not thrown from its back.

It's a Realist's nightmare.

However, while I can understand (and to a fair extent share) Burns' concern, I think he is giving unjustly short shrift to the Maliki government's encouraging moves toward consolidation and legitimacy for its claim to the trust of the Iraqi people.

Maliki's willingness to do battle with Iranian-backed Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents and terrorists, along with passage of legislation to reverse key de-Baathification measures have been enough for an important Sunni bloc to signal its willingness to rejoin the government, setting the stage for a more justly representative composition of that government, and allaying the fears of Iraq's Sunnis that the predominantly Shiite government would undertake mass vengeance for the Saddam-era oppression of Shiite Iraqis. The significance of these moves have also not been lost on neighboring Arab states, who have made some very encouraging gestures of confidence in the Iraqi government's ability to mind the store at home, and to hold fast against Iran. Indeed, the degree to which the Iraqi government has been able to accelerate the pace at which it has been meeting the political benchmarks set by the US Congress last year appears to have made more of an impression on Iraq's citizens and neighbors than it has on certain members of that Congress (and at least one Presidential contender) who have been unable to muster the intellectual honesty to acknowledge them without craven equivocation.

As for the relatively tough negotiations by Maliki and his ministers with respect to the Status of Forces agreement with the US after the UN mandate expires at the end of December, this may be more tea than tempest. If the Iraqi government is to further cement its legitimacy at home and in the region, it must make perfectly clear that it is not a mere puppet of Washington. Some may denigrate this as mere kabuki, but I think it is something far more salutary: politics. With provincial elections coming up, Maliki (and his party) needs to signal that all this talk of Iraqi sovereignty is not just for show, and that he is firmly in control of his constituents' interests. He knows as well as anyone that a premature withdrawal of American forces would very likely be an unmitigated disaster, but he also knows that he governs a proud people who will brook no poodles at the helm. Max Boot lays this out quite clearly, and offers these words of caution [emphasis added]:

The danger is that rhetoric intended for domestic political consumption in Iraq will warp our own political discussion by providing fodder for those who, like Obama, are now citing the success of U.S. forces, as they once cited their failure, as evidence that we can pull out safely. The reality is that while limited troop withdrawals are now possible without compromising the gains of the surge, going too far too fast can still throw our growing success into doubt.

It is an interesting point that, just as many worry that the exaggerated rhetoric of the American elections could have the effect of emboldening our enemies (and frightening our allies) abroad, so the bluster of Iraqi politicians jockeying for position in their nation might inadvertently [mis]guide the policy propositions of American politicians. The fact that the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics has taken on such an influential stature beyond its borders is strangely encouraging, and speaks to Burns' fears that the growing efficiency of the Iraqi military will prompt it to seize control from the civilian leadership. No such thing appears to be in the offing at this time, and much would have to go horribly wrong for that bogey to appear on the radar. This is not to say that it could not happen (this is Iraq, after all; it eats predictions for breakfast). But, with all due respect to Burns' reporting and analysis, publicly worrying that particular bone seems premature at best.

As a final note, via Hot Air, the much-vaunted (by "anti-war" figures at various levels) pronouncement by Maliki that he is seeking a timetable for American forces' withdrawal from the theater appears to have been a product of a simple mistranslation (and do note the source here; the BBC can hardly be accused of being a propaganda arm of the USGOV!). Pay close attention in the coming weeks to how slowly that particular meme is allowed to decay in the public conversation about the emerging Status of Forces Agreement. Traduttori, traditori, indeed!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

RIP, Tony

Today, I was genuinely saddened to read that Tony Snow has lost his battle with colon cancer and died at the age of only 53. I liked Tony. I really had hoped he would be able to beat this thing back for many more years, periodically bringing his signature folksy-yet-sophisticated style to scores more analytical guest spots to come.

If Ari Fleischer possessed an entertainingly oily charm (think Piven from "Entourage"); and Dana Perino presents a crisp, efficient, generally inoffensive demeanor (and is invariably quite snappily dressed); and Scott....well..there were the Lou Costello jokes...Anyway, Tony Snow was far and away the best Press Secretary this media-challenged Administration could have hoped for. He would never shrink from a scrap with the press when they got out of line, but he never seemed bitter or vindictive...not even with Helen Thomas!

I can't help thinking that if it had been Tony up there during those years that Milquetoast McLellan stammered and stumbled our way into utter incoherence of message, we might have been able to get far more done (and not bled so profusely in the mid-term elections). I had kind of hoped he would convalesce to the point that he might even serve in a McCain press office (I could see a certain affinity of temperaments).

He was appreciated almost as much as he will be missed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Barack Around Iraq!

Via Powerline, comes this vid from the RNC, pithily depicting the pivot-in-progress by the Obama campaign on the question of the Surge's success. It's pretty damning, as only the juxtaposing-video motif can be. Now, this technique can also be highly misleading when sound-bites are presented in decontextualized, prejudicial ways (just ask Jon Stewart, or --shudder-- Michael Moore). In this case, however, it is spot-on. Obama has been consistently saying that the Iraq War is ill-conceived and doomed, that the Surge would worsen the problem (if it had any effect at all), and that the best/only sensible path is to withdraw troops most ricky-tick.

Now, of course, the Primaries are behind him and he is swinging to the center (oh, yeah, and he also finds himself confronted by a Himalayan heap of proof of progress in Iraq which grows larger by the day, and which even his legions of Media mouthpieces can no longer conceal). Nothing especially unusual about that; it's part of what happens when one has to go from energizing the party base to courting the mainstream of the American populace. Par for a very old course.

The problem with Obama in this regard is twofold: First, he is not simply reconsidering earlier positions and revising them, but retroactively editing his positions in such a way as to suggest that his new stance is the one he was advocating all along. Second, this sort of gamesmanship is merely tiresome from politicians who display no serious pretensions of being anything but politicians. It is downright nauseating when coming from someone with whose risible affectations of elevated post-partisan enlightenment we are bombarded with all the subtlety of the Macarena, circa 1996. Can we really be expected to buy the notion that this guy possesses so much as a milligram of integrity when, right before any open pair of eyes, he alters his spin more than a drunken Dervish in a centrifuge?

Yes we can.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Endgame for AQI?

Richard Fernandez over at The Belmont Club's new location, offers a characteristically trenchant analysis of the unfolding situation in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the final urban redoubt of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The picture is looking ever-more grim for AQI, which exhibits all the signs of sliding toward a strategic defeat in Iraq. Back in May, I joined others in predicting that an accelerated tempo of operations was set to begin in and around Mosul, after months of hard-won but increasingly decisive victories against AQI which captured or killed its senior operatives, cut off its supply lines, interdicted its logistics, and utilized increasingly reliable intel from local populations to make its work all-but impossible across ever-widening swathes of the Iraqi landscape. It appears that these predictions have been coming to fruition, and that ruin is fast approaching for AQI and its misbegotten quest to collapse Iraq into the kind of chaotic swamp from which it could widen its regional and ultimately global ambitions.

Fernandez also casts his eye toward the unfolding efforts to fashion a truce between Israel and Syria. Given the role the latter has played in facilitating the passage of Jihadis into western Iraq, as well as its support for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the significance of this deal would extend far beyond the ever-contested borders of the two nations. The degree to which Syria could be taken out of the equation with respect to the destabilizing forces besetting the fledgling Republic of Iraq will have a strong bearing on how durable that nation will be when American forces begin to draw down in earnest over the next year or two. In essence, the Bush Administration is cleaning house, both for the sake of its legacy and in the interests of leaving as few open accounts as possible for the next POTUS. As Fernandez sums up:

Taken together these developments provide a rough, but fairly probable picture of what the situation will look like when the Bush Administration leaves office. Domestically, Al-Qaeda will probably have been reduced to insignificance, but remain dangerous within its dormancy. The Iranian militias will likely have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves, but still capable of occasional mayhem. On the international front, Iran will enter 2009 still unbeaten but Teheran will be casting an anxious eye at its protege, Hezbollah, which the US and Israelis will be trying to strangle. The Ayatollahs will look warily at the new Iraq, not only for the reasons of traditional geopolitical rivalry but also because the Iraqi Shi’ite south could be a sanctuary for political subversion against it. Most of all Teheran will be closely watching the United States bases in Iraq, knowing their utility goes beyond preserving Iraqi sovereignty but also as points from which the US can exploit any weaknesses in Iran.

All in all, the incoming administration will inherit a winning, but not a won hand in the region. Whether it holds up or folds up is up to them.

Do keep this in mind as Obama executes his near-inevitable pirouette on his "deeply-held convictions" about Ending The War. If he judges it to be politically expedient to leave himself enough wiggle room to amend his fixed time-line for retreat, it is my most fervent hope that the American public will not be fooled about the reasons for the progress he will find when he finally gets round to visiting Iraq (any day now...). That progress is the dividend of a brave and resolute campaign to wrest victory from the blood-drenched jaws of defeat, the very jaws into which Obama and his ilk have been all-too ready to cast the people of Iraq. That he will almost certainly attribute that progress to the pressure exerted on the Iraqi government by Democrats' incessant cries for premature withdrawal (just you watch!), only adds to the dizzying pile of reasons to declare him unworthy to express any opinion worth listening to on the matter of Iraq, and unfit to make any decisions on how to proceed in these perilous times.

The full implications of AQI's defeat in and around Mosul will take time to become clear. In the meantime, we owe it to our extraordinary troops and to the brave people of Iraq (not to mention ourselves) to exercise our own freedom in November to elect a President who will not take these gains for granted, nor squander them out of some vacuous notions of "change." AQI has been going through some changes lately, after all. And to that, I say, "more, please."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pious Provocateurs: Islamists in Europe

This past Monday, the Associated press reported that Dutch legislator Geert Wilders will not be prosecuted for inciting hatred against Muslims for his short film Fitna (Arabic for "Ordeal/Disagreement"). While undeniably a victory of sorts for free (if provocative) expression, I can't help but fear that we have not heard the end of this matter.

Geert Wilders is unquestionably a controversial figure, frequently straying into the realms of the obnoxious. Here's a sample:

Referring to the increased population of Muslims in the Netherlands, Wilders has said:

"Take a walk down the street and see where this is going. You no longer feel like you are living in your own country. There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves. Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches!"[18]

Later, Wilders suggested that Muslims should “tear out half of the Koran if they wished to stay in the Netherlands” because it contained 'terrible things' and that Muhammad would “in these days be hunted down as a terrorist”. These statements caused strong reactions in Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.[19]

On 8 August 2007, Wilders opined in a letter[20] to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant that the Koran, which he called a "fascist book", should be outlawed in the Netherlands, like Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.[21] He stated that: "The book incites hatred and killing and therefore has no place in our legal order."

Strong stuff.

This past week-end, I was having a conversation with a friend with whom my disagreements on geopolitics in many cases spring from the level of axiomatic differences. While we inevitably hit on impenetrable walls of fundamentally incompatible world-views, I have found pretty much all that we cover before striking that bedrock to be quite useful, as it forces me to visit and revisit some assumptions which can get past my objectivity screens. One such issue was the degree to which conservative-to-radical Islam constitutes a threat to the liberal/secular societies within various European nations. As I (hopefully accurately) synthesize it, my friend's position was essentially that the exaggeration of that threat, and the adversarial approaches which can flow from that distorted perception gushes fuel onto a fire which would otherwise snuff itself out. Reading some of these statements from Wilders, one can see where that argument is not entirely without a certain plausibility.

Unfortunately, I just don't see that position as being able to withstand careful scrutiny. It is true that some decidedly unhelpful things have been done and said by some Dutch citizens toward Muslim communities in the Netherlands. However, It is hard to look at the circumstances surrounding the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and lay the blame entirely or even predominantly on the inflammatory images of the film, "Submission," which he made with Somali-born Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali (herself the subject of ominously persistent death threats). The above-linked post links to the English translation of an unclassified report (PDF) from the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment that lays out a great deal of very worrisome analysis of Van Gogh's killer, his associations, and the broader affiliations which radiate outward from those associations. The picture is not pretty for those who choose to view the murder as the isolated act of a deranged fanatic, instead pointing to a rather extensive radical Islamist network, actively engaged in recruitment, and possibly possessing ties to groups such as al Qaeda. To wit:

  • In Amsterdam, [Van Gogh murderer Mohammad] Bouyeri was recruited into an al-Qaeda cell that met twice a week at a house he rented at 27 Marianne Philipsstraat in the Geuzenveld-Slotermeer district of Amsterdam. There, the group listened to religious sermons by Syrian Islamist preacher Ridwan al-Issar (Abu Khatib). A number of al-Issar's followers had been under surveillance by the Dutch secret service AIVD for more than 2 years and the group was known as the Hofstad Network since a number of the cell members lived in Hofstad, i.e. the Hague.
  • Bouyeri had been questioned by police at one point in 2003 but was released, as he was not considered an important member of the group.
  • Al-Issar vanished from Holland the day of the Van Gogh killing and his current whereabouts are unknown, though Dutch intelligence believes he may have returned to Syria. Other members of the Hofstad Network have been detained or questioned in connection with the attack.
  • How Bouyeri joined the Hofstad Network is still unclear, though it is likely that he was met by a recruiter during an alienated or transitional period of his life. A report by Dutch secret service director Sybrand van Hulst states that terrorists impress youths who hold to romanticized notions of Islamic terrorism. After striking up friendship, the recruiters tell the youths that established mosques are too lax and that they need to isolate themselves from the rest of society in order to take part in jihad, which is an Islamic duty, with martyrdom being its highest achievement. After that, youths are subjected to jihadi videos and go to readings, conferences, and summer camps as well as chat rooms and bulletin boards that reinforce the notion that jihad is the highest calling. The finest phase of this indoctrination usually involves recruits being asked to write a martyr's testament similar to that found on Bouyeri.
What emerges here is the picture of an organized cell of Islamist activity which does not arise from a sense of disenchantment with European society, so much as exploit and act to magnify that disenchantment among Dutch Muslims, and contribute to their radicalization for the purposes of recruitment. One might then argue that this radicalization was a defensive reaction to a feeling of alienation and enmity from the ethnic Dutch citizens who surrounded them. The trouble with that formulation, though, is that the formation of the so-called Hofstad Group predates Van Gogh's film by several years. It predates Geert Wilders' departure in September, 2004, from the relatively Liberal and tolerant People's Party for Freedom and Democracy. Indeed, according to this chilling summary from the Counterterrorism Blog, the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Western Europe constitute the patient work of decades

And while the final goal of the Brotherhood is, as its publications and leaders openly say, world dominance, the group adopts different tactics to obtain it. Flexibility and deceit are the two qualities that distinguish the Brotherhood from groups such as al Qaeda and that have allowed the group to thrive throughout its history. The Brotherhood, in fact, operates in different ways according to the circumstances. In places were conflict is what it deems the best option to achieve its goal, the Brotherhood will pick up arms. In Palestine, for example, the Brotherhood operates through Hamas (art. 2 of Hamas official charter states: “Hamas is one of the wings of Moslem Brotherhood in Palestine.”). In the West, on the other hand, the Brotherhood has chosen a completely different tactic. Having realized that a full front confrontation, as the one al Qaeda is attempting, against the West, is premature, given the relative weakness of the radical Islamic movement, the Brotherhood has decided for a more nuanced approach.

In the West violence and confrontation are replaced by a cleverly engineered mix of penetration of the system through appeasement and simultaneous radicalization of the Muslim population. Its leaders publicly vow the group’s dedication to integration and democracy, representing themselves as mainstream, and seeking to portray themselves as the representatives of the various Western Muslim communities in the media and in dialogues with Western governments. Yet, speaking Arabic or Turkish before their fellows Muslims, they drop their facade and embrace radicalism. While Brotherhood representatives speak about interfaith dialogue and integration on television, the group’s mosques preach hate and warn worshippers about the evils of Western society. While they publicly condemn the murder of commuters in Madrid and school children in Russia, they continue to raise money for Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Muslims living in European countries are exhorted by radical Imams and cell leaders to separate themselves from the "infidel" societies whose material benefits they enjoy, to form their own "Muslim ghettos," and immerse themselves within traditional communities, which grow larger through a combination of active recruitment and liberal immigration policies. And, whether it's torching cars in the ghettos of France, or perpetrating violent crimes against homosexuals in Amsterdam (!), the restive energy of these self-segregated communities is not especially well-contained, even excluding the occasional detonation on buses and commuter trains.

One need only think back to the kerfuffle over the appearance of 12 cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad in the Danish publication, Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, to appreciate the degree to which tensions are being deliberately manipulated to sow discord (fitna, if you will). Here, the original 12 cartoons were, with a couple of exceptions, quite tame, and the response among Danish Muslims was sharp, but circumscribed, and looking to have a short shelf life. That is, until a delegation of Danish Imams decided to take the cartoons on the road, along with a few extremely offensive additions which had not appeared in the original publication, to a gathering of Islamic scholars in the Middle East (scroll down at the above, "kerfuffle" link, to "The Fake Cartoons"). A far deeper game was afoot here than mere emotional reactions to a theologically dubious matter of representing the Prophet graphically, as Walid Phares reflects:

Would a generalized inflaming of the masses on the "cartoon matter" be better before or after the Palestinian elections, by Hamas standards? Before or after the Iraqi elections, by Salafi angle? Before or after the Egyptian elections, by Muslim Brotherhood plans? Before or after the withdrawal from the Lebanese Government, by Hezbollah calculations? Before or after the Iranian decision to rush to the nuclear race, by Ahmedinijad's planning? And on the top coincidence list was the fact that Denmark was to head the UN Security Council, just as its members were to take Tehran to the UN. At first glance, there is no link between the spontaneous but violent demonstrations on the one hand and the complex calculations of the web of regimes and organizations. I argue otherwise. M Abu Laban heralded it loudly: the delegation went to seek support from the Arab Muslim East after all attempts to resolve it failed. The first part of the assertion is correct: Arab League diplomats in Copenhagen were not satisfied by the Danish Government response and we know why. But the second part of the delegation's journey into the region is to be addressed: If the Arab League was rebuffed by liberal Denmark who they ask "support" from in Egypt, Syria, Gaza,and the rest of the region? In short, religious authorities and militant forces: And why would they seek beyond the diplomatic circles as a Danish citizen? Because a decision to ignite an intifada was already made by the architects of the overseas journey: One doesn't remit the dossier to Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, the Ikhwan of Egypt, Hamas and the other Salafi in the region to request some prayers: The casus belli was already on. It was beyond the Danish cartoons. It was about a broader issue: Something a representative of an American Islamist group called on CNN "a strategic change in world relationship after 9/11." Hence, the procedure, not the substance of the protest, had to be thought, devised and prepared. Hence the time elapsed between September and January. (Emphasis added; wonky formatting fixed)
Look, there aren't many things that honk me off more than undisciplined conspiracy-mongering. Everything from Grassy Knolls and "Capricorn One" stories about the Moon landings, to the execrable "Truthers" of 9/11, as far as I'm concerned, is prima facie evidence of ignorance, muddy thinking, outright delusionality, or all of the above. It takes a lot for me to start "connecting the dots," and superimposing patterns on things which can more parsimoniously be explained as coincidental. That said, it should be re-emphasized that the well-publicized riots which occurred in response to those cartoons took five months to "flare up," at which time there were ready supplies of Danish flags available for burning. Further, many of these demonstrations took place in countries like Syria, whose iron-fisted regime is not especially tolerant of spontaneous displays of popular will. If something goes down on Assad's turf, and no one gets their head caved in, it's a pretty safe bet that it's at least sanctioned (at most, orchestrated) at the highest levels.

So, what are we to make of the apparent fact that such a local and --let's face it-- rather silly matter should become embroiled in such far-flung geopolitical affairs? The friend I mentioned earlier would probably propose that there is no threat from Islamists in Europe, but for the defensive posture they are forced to adopt in response to the xenophobic chest-thumping of Neocon busybodies who just can't leave well enough alone. There are many on the other side of this debate who would suggest that all Muslims, by commission of terrorism or by omission of condemnation for the radicals in their midst, are a Threat. Not uncharacteristically, I find myself arriving at a point somewhere in the middle of these extremes. People are not pouring out of Mosques, man and boy, to saw off the head of Geert Wilders, and the initial reaction among Danish Muslims was surely vexed, but not murderously so. That is, until an organized campaign was put into effect to stoke the sputtering embers of conflict into a conflagration.

Unfortunately, there is rather fertile ground for such campaigns on the Continent. The dominant ethic of multiculturalism sounds great, until one pauses to reflect that there is precious little impetus for large communities of relatively unassimilated immigrants to shift their allegiance and identity from their cultures of origin to that of the nation in which they reside. Cultural, linguistic and even legal traditions exist almost intact within societies whose extreme tolerance only fosters that separateness, rather than pulling for a sense of a larger community which absorbs differences into a richer common identity. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims living in Europe are not itching for the chance to wage Jihad against the West. But lacking a dense web of interconnections with the surrounding society, those Muslims are insufficiently inoculated against the pernicious whisperings of those all-too adroit manipulators of their nostalgia and alienation in the service of an agenda which is far more sinister than mere unmolested coexistence.

Geert Wilders surely says some horrid things about Islam, and were I a Muslim, I would be sorely pissed at him for his disrespect. But then again, were I a Christian or a Jew, I would have some choice words for some of the venom that gets spouted about those faiths as well (and not just by Muslims). However, the point is not to silence any of these voices, least of all by the threat of violence. Democratic societies rely on free speech to provide a marketplace of ideas out of which arise imperfect but evolving approximations of justice. The moment we begin to quash some of these ideas out of fear of the offense they might give, we open a window to just the kinds of exceedingly dangerous psychological operations which seem so very clearly and intelligently to be utilized by radical Islamists to constrict that marketplace and degrade the very freedom which gives them room to operate.

The fact that Wilders was not prosecuted for Hate Speech is a good sign, but we must not let down our guard against those who would not see the irony in the quote (author unknown): "In the interests of tolerance, let us refuse to tolerate the intolerant."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Quenching Iraqi Thirsts, One at a Time

Posting has been embarrassingly scant. What can I say: It's Summer (and any parents who are reading this, will know exactly what I'm talking about). I have been working on a rather rambling entry on Islamists in Europe (occasioned by Geert Wilders' dodging the Hate-Crime bullet for his film "Fitna"). Coming soon.

Meanwhile, Here's a really encouraging bit from the Long War Journal about the opening of a water treatment and distribution facility in Baghdad, paid for out of the Iraqi coffers. The potable water will be made available for free to many of the poorest residents of some Baghdad neighborhoods, who will come to collect their allotment at drive-through taps. As the article points out, the neighborhoods served by the facility have been havens for Sadr's Mahdi Army/'Special Groups' Shia goon squads, who have benefited from and contributed to the misery and squalor in which residents lived. Drinkable water was only available from local water-sellers, whose price structure was not especially favorable for the poor families of the area.

Here again, we see the bumbling incompetence of Sadr; even a murderous psychopath like Hassan Nasrallah has the sense to graft "social services" onto the Hezbollah terrorist organization in order to win support --and rocket launch sites-- from the hapless citizens of Lebanon. Sadr's felicitously foolish oversight opens yet another window of opportunity for the Coalition and for the people of Iraq. After all, the good grateful folks who gather by the water cooler may have a thing or two to say about the bearded blokes next door, the ones with all the fertilizer and ball bearings...

Electricity is proving a somewhat tougher nut to crack (though not as tough as some recalcitrant critics of OIF like to get exercised about), but that's in the pipe as well (as it were). Mix all this in with the accelerating progress on those not-so-elusive-after-all benchmarks, and it's getting much harder for even the staunchest advocates for a craven withdrawal to maintain a consistent position. In the end, the "anti-war" crowd's thirst for vindication through defeat may be the only one that's set to go unquenched.

May the coming months and years prove arid ones for them.