Friday, July 29, 2005

America the one-eyed

I've been surgically attached to Belmont again this morning, reading two new posts that purport to be about the role of Central Asia in the global conflict, present and future. I say "purport to be" because the comment threads, particularly in the second post, quickly became philosophical rather than strategic. Fascinating stuff, some of which calls to mind the scene from The Princess Bride, Greatest Movie of All TimeTM, in which Vezzini, Buttercup hostage at his side, is lecturing Westley about fights to stay out of:

The first [universal adage] is to stay out of land wars in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! [And then he drops dead.]

I have re-created the quote. All who know the movie, please cut slack.

So my first thought is that if, as Wretchard at Belmont suggests, we're poised to enter that realm of military folly known as "land war in Asia," I certainly hope he's right that our now-demonstrated ability to project force far from the sea and from permanent bases will be as effective as the steppe horses were for the Mongols - NOT that I advocate attacking China, of COURSE. Good gravy. But the point is, that's one big swath of land there, Central Asia, and more than one army has wandered around in it for a long time, getting progressively hungrier and colder before reaching its goal. If our fortunes take us there, we'd better have our supply lines locked down and defended...

And my second thought is related. Some Belmont commenters, examining the prospect for our chasing down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan or wherever his fortunes have taken or will take him - but probably northward if, as many believe, he's currently harboring in northwestern Pakistan and we have any success in convincing Musharraf that we're going to come after bin Laden no matter how concerned he, Musharraf, is about Pakistan's border integrity - brought up the question of why we're not trying to get Russia or (less probably) China involved in the forward effort. After all, the reasoning goes, all the 'stans were once in the Soviet sphere and Moscow retains at least illusions that they are Russia's turf; why not use that to our advantage?

The title of this post is intended to convey my belief and understanding that we are not licensed drivers of the engine of history, a tortured metaphor if ever there was one. We, like every other civilization and people before us, are doing the best we can to choose a course that is good for us. The difference between what we're doing and what other, less visionary (if I may use the term) nations are doing is, I think, that we're attempting to see at least the medium term. It's been pointed out in various spots and with various emphases that the War on Terror is in fact in some respects a war for oil - or, more cogently, a war for Our Way of Life, since OWoL runs on oil (and gas, and coal, pace my husband in the energy biz). Oil matters. Oil on the open market matters a lot - nowhere have we "conquered" an oil-producing nation and arrogated its oil resources for ourselves; we always buy, and in practice we prefer the market model for pricing. Giant oil fields in the hands of militant Wahhabists - that's not a scenario we should want to promote, either from an OWoL standpoint or from a human rights standpoint. Central Asia has promise as an oil-producing region - some say as productive a region as the Middle East is today, though I haven't looked that up anywhere. So. Do we want that region under the control of bin Laden's spiritual brethren (by whom I do not mean Muslims, but rather militant Wahhabists, Islamofascists, or choose your euphemism for Muslims who believe that their mission in life is the return of the Caliphate by whatever means necessary)? Clearly not.

But almost as clearly, we don't want those lands under the control of a Russia that apparently still entertains notions of "democracy" radically different from ours. (Recall that the Soviet Union always tried to convince the world that it was a "democracy" too - just a remarkably unified one.) Nor do we want China, with few pretensions to post-Soviet reform, in control. While we're allied with both, in general, in the GWOT, our interests do not align perfectly, to say the least. So in the medium term, at least, it behooves us to prepare to project our power into the vastness of Central Asia, not to subjugate it but to provide its people with an alternative to Chinese central control and Russian pseudo-empire. If we succeed in promoting real democracy in the 'stans, how much the better for us?

This is where I get puzzled: where are the Russians and Chinese? Why aren't they taking advantage of either the wide-openness of the region or our current "distraction" in Iraq? If we must get involved in Central Asia, even if "only" to the extent of supporting democratic reform movements (as we're already doing, which in itself represents a pretty significant departure from the past century or so), we stand to create a region of allies where we've never had them before. If Russia and China have had the use of their eyes over the past twenty years or so, perhaps they've noticed that Soviet-style socialism is gone the way of the dodo and Chinese-style socialism has survived only by hybridizing heavily with capitalism; why would they ignore these facts of recent history and, respectively, warn the US to stay out of the 'stans because they're "traditionally" part of Moscow's sphere of influence, or apparently ignore them altogether? See this map and ask yourself why China isn't in the news all the time concerning Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Certainly there are ethnic considerations - but I say again, these countries appear to be "up for grabs" in the alliance sweepstakes, in an area of important strategic value right now and potentially even more important economic value in the future - especially with China's oil consumption growing like the weeds I can't keep ahead of in the back yard. Yet - nothing. In the country of the blind, we do appear to be king.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Do I cheer or weep?

Victor Davis Hanson is kind of an odd duck. A Californian, a farmer, a Hoover fellow, an expert in military history - I look to him from time to time when I need a historical perspective on war (for instance, when I've seen too many "War is not the answer" bumper stickers in one day). He's often breathtakingly brilliant, I think. But I was dismayed by an article of his I just read.

Called "The Same Old, Same Old," the article concerns the circumstances that made the London bombings possible: in particular the feelgood political correctness that declares any suggestion of a gigantic common link between the London bombings, the Egyptian bombing last weekend, Madrid last year, 9/11, the USS Cole, the Marine barracks in Lebanon back in the '80s, and so on, and so forth, ad in-bloody-finitum - a violent and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam - racist and unacceptable. We are so afraid to be insensitive to the cultural imperatives of others, Hanson says, that we shelter the asp in our bosom, trumpeting free speech as young Muslims in London (and not just London) are taught to hate the system that feeds, clothes, shelters, and permits them to hate it.

That's not the part I'm dismayed about. All that is common knowledge among those paying attention. Look, I've got no beef with Islam; as I might say about Christianity if I knew as little about Christ as I know about Mohammed, any religion that can retain the belief of a billion people can't be all bad. (Yes, I know some call Islam the "one-way religion"; I have no personal knowledge of how easy, difficult, or acceptable it is to become an apostate Muslim, so I can't comment.) I have a huge problem with the fact that the Muslim "mainstream" is not more vehement in its denunciations... and this is the part of Hanson's article that I hated. He says this:

...a madrassa that indoctrinates directionless youth, or an imam who shouts hatred to his audience, must always simultaneously when called upon “condemn” terrorism, and then seek victimhood when the rare scrutiny of an outraged public nears.

And even more to my dismay:

Bin Laden has so far only made one mistake: He took down the entire World Trade Center rather than the top floors, and had the misfortune of having George Bush as president. Thus he lost Afghanistan and ended up with democratic reform from Iraq and Lebanon to the Gulf and Egypt. Train bombings in Madrid and bus explosions in London, like the carnage in Iraq, are preferable, since they are enough to terrify and demoralize the Westerner but not quite enough to knock sense into him that only military resistance and victory will save his civilization.

In other words, the goal of terror attacks (brace yourselves, this is self-evident but I forgot it) is terror, not necessarily the infliction of mass casualties and certainly not military supremacy. Hanson suggests that the scale of terror attacks since 9/11 has been deliberate - deliberately small: just enough to sap our will for this fight, without being enough to galvanize our resolve. So far they've failed, because of Bush, Blair, and Howard and the stubborn will of the Anglosphere (not being culturalist here; can anyone believe that if we went home to sulk within our own borders, Romania would fight on?). What happens in 2008?

On the good side, it's not clear on which side the terrorists have been erring: have the attacks been too small to sap our will effectively, or too large such that they have bolstered our cojones? And, too, I confess to a sense that even Hanson can overestimate our opponents: are they - and by "they" I mean the midlevel people who must be in charge of planning and executing attacks such as the London bombings - as subtle as all that? Or would they in fact aim for the most blood, the most torn metal, the most horror they could gin up?

In any event, their second try in London is clearly a loss for them, a win for us. In no way was London "terrorized" by the second, failed bombing attempts. I've heard a few commenters suggest that the failure will act in the terrorists' favor in that they'll garner grossly misplaced sympathy on their account - but really, people. And, too, I've heard some commenters make the point that we tend to ascribe to our enemy almost supernatural powers - their numbers grow magically and geometrically, like the undead fighters in Alexander's Black Cauldron (LOVE those books), while we can't always make our recruitment numbers (but our reinstatement numbers are exceeding goals) even with increasing enlistment bonuses, etc.

All right then. I've cheered myself up to some extent. Kids crying to go to the pool - off I go to brave the chlorine, the ultraviolet, the Lyme disease...

On eating and having cake

I've been over at Belmont Club, one of my favorite strategy/foreign affairs blogs, and Wretchard, its erudite and almost anonymous (he just revealed his Secret Identity a few weeks ago) author, had interesting things to say about the presence or absence of a global terror network. It appears that in January 2005, the BBC ran a series called The Power of Nightmares. (I'd give you the link, but I'd rather you followed the Belmont Club "presence or absence" link in the previous sentence, which will point you to the BBC if you want to go there. Reason: Wretchard is infinitely smarter than the Beeb and it's in the comments to his blog that my point resides.) The premise: that there is no global terror network, but that the illusion of one, created or at least used by politicians to cement their positions, scares us just as much as a real one would. The problem: the London bombings, which are increasingly acknowledged to be linked to al Qaeda (not least because people claiming responsibility for the first set of bombings stated that they are a branch of al Qaeda).

There's been a lot of talk from some quarters, including the Kerry camp in the runup to the November 2004 elections, that if Bush had "kept his eye on the ball" (as if that was the problem) and captured bin Laden rather than getting "distracted" by Iraq, we wouldn't now be in the mess those quarters claim we're in. (Side note: this view of how to capture bin Laden reminds me a lot of an old joke about how to perform a do-it-yourself kidney transplant: "First, remove the diseased kidney..." I'm no doubt grossly misstating it, but the point the joke and I are trying to make is that simply glossing over the so-difficult-it-could-be-considered-miraculous-if-successful does not constitute a complete instruction. Thusly: "All Bush had to do was keep his eye on the ball and he would have captured bin Laden.") Anyway. The implication, sometimes the bald statement, was that capturing bin Laden would bring an end to Islamist terror against the West. If that were the case, my goodness, sounds like a global terror network to me...

Friday, July 08, 2005

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The stakes in Iraq

This entry, dear reader(s), is part of an ongoing discussion at a favorite blog check-in of mine, Tom Maguire's JustOneMinute (found here). The topic of discussion was nominally that the Gray Lady was finally realizing that, willy-nilly, we are in Iraq - time to focus on how to win there, and on what constitutes victory; TM's specific entry is here. I was - I won't say "chasing a rabbit," because in my oh-so-humble opinion the point I raised is absolutely critical - but I was skating dangerously close to an attempted blog-hijack, I think - posting comments that were getting sufficiently off-topic as to annoy both host and fellow commenters.

My point was that Republicans and/or conservatives and/or generalized hawks are highly motivated to keep trying to convince those on the other side of the necessity and positive significance of the war in Iraq not just because we're contentious, but more importantly because Bush cannot be reelected. We face the prospect of a Democratic or otherwise dovish White House in the next Presidential term, and if we lose the political will to stay in Iraq until our presence is no longer needed to create or maintain security for the new democratic government there, we stand to lose much more than face. I laid out several results of an Iraq cut-and-run, which are not an exhaustive list but are what I immediately thought of:

If we leave Iraq before it's ready to stand on its own, surrounded by non-democracies and pseudo-democracies and itself a novice at self-determination, we:
1. Squander our hard-won credibility - for once in the past fifty or so years, we've so far done what we said we'd do;
2. Condemn one or more ethic minorities in Iraq to the tender mercies of whatever faction manages to grab power there;
3. Orphan democratic movements throughout the region;
4. Lose out on a big chunk of energy portfolio diversification and put ourselves again in the Saudis' hands;
5. Lose an incredibly valuable intel/translator/interlocutor source and an actual Arab ally;
6. and have to do it all again one day.

One commenter who disagrees with me put it this way:

1. Squander our hard-won credibility - for once in the past fifty or so years, we've so far done what we said we'd do;

I didn’t know we said we would invade a country for what non-state actors were doing to us in Africa, Aden and NYC. “If you hit me again Jamie, I’m going to punch out Cecil!”
We picked out Saddam to overthrow for the acts of others? How does punching out the wrong man strengthen our credibility against the perpetrators? The only way it does is to link terrorists to Saddam, which is why it’s the current R talking point.

2. Condemn one or more ethic minorities in Iraq to the tender mercies of whatever faction manages to grab power there;

This is our job? They have been fighting each other longer than this country has existed. I really don’t think we will “solve” it , or even contain it, unless we maintain a military presence indefinitely. They will have to work it out themselves.

3. Orphan democratic movements throughout the region;

We have adopted them? We are supporting fifth columnists in every Arab country? How would we feel of foreign powers were funding “movements” in this country? Remember the Chinese political fundraising ruckus?

4. Lose out on a big chunk of energy portfolio diversification and put ourselves again in the Saudis' hands;

So you agree it was the oil. We’re the strongest – we’re taking it – right? Law of the jungle. Nasty, brutish and short.

5. Lose an incredibly valuable intel/translator/interlocutor source and an actual Arab ally;

How is a perceived puppet valuable to us in a conflict with our opponents? We’re winning hearts and minds by imposing western values? If “liberals” are traitors for mentioning the word NAZI, how will some Islamic demagogue paint a “free” Iraq?

6. and have to do it all again one day.

Absolutely correct. We will have to do it once a generation – forever.

And below is my reply:

"We resolved then, and we are resolved today, to confront every threat, from any source, that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America" and "Over the years, Iraq has provided safe haven to terrorists such as Abu Nidal, whose terror organization carried out more than 90 terrorist attacks in 20 countries that killed or injured nearly 900 people, including 12 Americans. Iraq has also provided safe haven to Abu Abbas, who was responsible for seizing the Achille Lauro and killing an American passenger. And we know that Iraq is continuing to finance terror and gives assistance to groups that use terrorism to undermine Middle East peace." (both from "Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing." (from Our quid-pro-quo was clear; we followed through exactly as we said we would. For more on the ever-popular "Why Iraq? And if Iraq, why not North Korea?" please see den Beste, for example, at, for all the good it'll do. Warning: it will give you what you think is ammo for the "Bush lied!" thing; he points out that WMDs were not a primary rationale against Iraq, though their threat was certainly viewed as real.

This nation never said "We will pursue the planners and any surviving perpetrators of the attacks on 9/11 to the ends of the earth - but only those people" because, as many have noted, the criminal-indictment model had already proven itself a big flop. As much as you personally, and many who share your views, would like to believe that our only legitimate action would have been a la the prior WTC garage bombing, the policy of our nation from September 2001 onward was to take the fight to terrorists and their supporters (necessary, since terrorists don't have to squat in one spot and wait, but nations do), at our option rather than solely in response to their actions, wherever we found them.

Onward. Re: failing to follow through on our promise to the various ethnic minorities of Iraq - yes, these people have been fighting one another for hundreds of years, and we're standing in the way of continued ethnic violence. Having stepped in, staying in during this tenuous time is indubitably our responsibility. Before we were in Iraq, Saddam was able to oppress and kill his populace at his own whim; one of the costs of regime change in a post-realpolitik world is that we don't allow the next-strongest strongman to take over that task. It's to our nation's shame, but to the doom of a lot of Iraqis, that we failed to follow through on our implied commitment to them back after GWI. Similarly, our armed support of a democratic Iraq has emboldened democratic movements throughout the Middle East. It's not exactly like finding a baby on your doorstep, who becomes your responsibility willy-nilly, but more like (ohboy, here goes) Syndrome in The Incredibles: inspired by Mr. Incredible, Syndrome wanted desperately to become his youthful ward and sidekick; rebuffed, he made revenge his life's work, which is where the analogy fails utterly, since although I could see a movement that could feel itself abandoned becoming both powerful and vengeful against the US, I think its home government's oppressing it out of existence is the more likely outcome.

Re: oil. We aren't taking the oil. We are buying the oil. We buy oil where oil is. If Iraq is producing oil that's available on the open market, we don't have to buy as much Saudi oil, and we are less "beholden" to the Saudis and hence more able to pursue hard diplomacy concerning their support of Wahabbiism and terrorists. Portfolio diversification is not only a weapon in the WOT but sound policy in any case, unless you want to put all our nation's eggs in one basket as we did during the '70s energy "crisis." Look. There's no commercial alternative energy source available or even on the horizon; oil is the world's fuel. Would you rather be majority-dependent on Saudi Arabia, or Mexico, or Russia, or would you rather have a stake in each of these markets and have less concern about natural or artificial shortages in one?

Re: Iraq as puppet, I defer to Will (thanks, Will)[Interjection for bewildered blog-readers: Will is another commenter, who stated that other Arab nations' perception of us or of Iraq is less important than the Iraqi people's perception of their own government; if the people of Iraq can see their government acting in their interests and not at our behest, in time even electing leaders on a platform of "Americans out!," their perception that their government is in fact independent, not a puppet of the United States, is in the long run the only one that matters.]. But as to translators, surely you agree that a whole nation full of Arabic-speakers could be useful; as to intel, surely you realize that it's easier in general to infiltrate an enemy organization if you're a native speaker, and that Ba'athist elements in Iraq who may be turned could have interesting information for us (you may not realize or want to admit that, since it implies a connection between Saddam and Islamic terror, but there you go); as to interlocutors, OK, perhaps initially - but nonetheless, as an "infidel" woman, I can't even shake hands with an observant Muslim, and Condoleezza Rice is in that position as well. Even an Iraqi "puppet" diplomat would have more instant ability to defuse cultural prejudices than Sec. Rice would, and negotiation works a lot better when the weaker or aggrieved party at least doesn't feel as if it must jettison its principles, such as they are, from the get-go.

As to your "we'll have to do this once a generation - forever," you lost me there. Is the world's history entirely bereft of ethnicities who learned to live in civility, if not harmony? Or do you contend that Arabs just aren't up to it? (Yup, bait. But how else should I take the statement?) Shoot, even fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews are able to live side-by-side practically everywhere, not always without tension but almost always without violence, and we all know that even in recent history some Christian sects (and one Gospel was written/translated in such a way as to emphasize this misunderstanding) blamed Jews for Jesus's death - is there a more, you should excuse the expression, fundamental rift than that? What is necessary is in essence forty years of wandering in the desert, a tactic those aware of Judeo-Christian tradition will recognize as God's own way of dealing with culturally ingrained but harmful ideas.

We won't be necessary as a security force in Iraq for much longer. "Much longer" is not to be understood as months, however, but as years. It may well be longer than the remainder of Bush's term, but I am confident that it won't be as long as Saddam's reign. Possibly this period could have been shortened by different or more precipitate action immediately after the fall of Baghdad - but we'll never know, and we have what we have. It's time to stand still on the spot you choose: do you want to win, for ourselves, for Iraq, for the Middle East, or do you want to lose, so Bush looks bad or for the sake of your own ideology? (These "you's" are impersonal ones, not aimed at my commenter-opponent.) (It is of course possible that you would want to win for the sake of making the other side look bad, but because winning will have mostly good effects and losing will have mostly bad ones regardless of motive - I don't see that there's another way to view the outcomes - feel free to feed your desire to gloat, pro-winning types.)

I'm interested to hear comments concerning alternative views of what the result of "Iraq: Out in '09" would be. Please convince me, if you can: like all good Americans, I don't want to lose one more American soldier, one more contractor, one more innocent Iraqi, without good reason.

Side note that isn't really "side": yesterday my oldest informed me that soldiers on the battlefield might be able to talk encouragingly to their enemies, and convince them that peace is better than war. I stopped in my tracks: time for what is sometimes called a "come-to-Jesus" in Texas and points east o' there. He's a young kid, still, so I went against my nature and tried to keep it simple, but in essence here it is: peace is obviously better than war in a neutral sense, but there are some things worth fighting for, and when one of those things is in jeopardy you must fight or die, either individually or as a nation. Or, I presume, as a civilization or a species. Furthermore, your enemy will not always be amenable to encouraging words, and - again with a The Incredibles reference - will not hold back because your intentions are good. The way in which this is not a side discussion ought to be obvious: giving Iraqis the hope of and the ability to start and nurture a government of, by, and for their own people is a good reason to stay there until they can manage it alone.