Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A short course in terror

So another SOTU is behind us... and again Bush laid out what we're fighting and what we're fighting for in Iraq:

In the mind of the terrorist [sic], this war began well before September the 11th, and will not end until their radical vision is fulfilled. And these past five years have given us a much clearer view of the nature of this enemy. Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology. Take almost any principle of civilization, and their goal is the opposite. They preach with threats, instruct with bullets and bombs, and promise paradise for the murder of the innocent.

Our enemies are quite explicit about their intentions. They want to overthrow moderate governments, and establish safe havens from which to plan and carry out new attacks on our country. By killing and terrorizing Americans, they want to force our country to retreat from the world and abandon the cause of liberty. They would then be free to impose their will and spread their totalitarian ideology. Listen to this warning from the late terrorist Zarqawi: "We will sacrifice our blood and bodies to put an end to your dreams, and what is coming is even worse." Osama bin Laden declared: "Death is better than living on this Earth with the unbelievers among us."

These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement.

But here, as the President was speaking about the 2006 response of terrorists to our military and diplomatic successes in 2005, is the passage I believe most important:

In Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists blew up one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam -- the Golden Mosque of Samarra. This atrocity, directed at a Muslim house of prayer, was designed to provoke retaliation from Iraqi Shia -- and it succeeded. Radical Shia elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day.

This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in.

I'm not a fool, and nor (in spite of claims to the contrary) is Bush. Sectarian strife existed in Iraq long before Saddam Hussein and was bound to be problematic in a post-Saddam Iraq whose central government had not yet consolidated its power and authority. But for a while it appeared manageable - disruptive and sometimes tragic, but not rising to the level of an existential threat. Heck, sectarian or ethnic violence has existed and does exist in many nations not considered failed states. Actions like the destruction of the Golden Mosque, which incited a degree of violence that hadn't yet been seen from the Shia majority, were instrumental in bringing us, and Iraq, to this point, and it's vital to realize these actions for what they were and are: a tactic in an overall strategy.

The strategy: to weaken Iraqi support for a moderate government and to sap the American will sufficiently to undermine our efforts to uphold that duly elected government. The tactic succeeded in bringing strongly Shia-sectarian elements in that government into ascendancy, which in turn gave cover to Shia militias, first perceived as "protectors" but eventually functioning as lawless pseudo-vigilantes, their every action undermining the Iraqi government's necessary monopoly on armed force.

Enough, says Bush - and I hope al-Maliki is speaking the truth when he echoes that declaration. Because if al-Maliki is ready to back up the word with the commitment, Baghdad can be a real capital city of a real democratic nation.

This whole exercise - a live-fire exercise with no do-overs - is a fascinating study in what we've taken for granted. We in the West, I mean. Take that monopoly on force: in the United States, the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear arms, and the debate rages (to coin a phrase) over whether the founders meant that each individual ought to be able to own a gun, or whether the intent was to arm a national guard. (Where I stand should be obvious.) In neither case is there any implied threat to a government monopoly on the use of force. When militias have arisen in the United States, post-Revolution, they've been widely decried as - at least - bordering on extra-legal. (Yes, some American militias have achieved a regional and ephemeral celebrity.)

But in Iraq, such groups actually had, and for some Iraqis no doubt still have, a tacit claim on legitimacy. Middle Eastern society has skipped too many steps. The nations with oil have been able to pole-vault from the Middle Ages to the new millenium without passing through an Enlightenment. A math analogy: in my freshman calculus class, about half the students had taken calculus as seniors in high school, and, smug, shouted out, "3x2!" as soon as the instructor wrote "x3" on the board. The prof, determined to get us to understand what we were doing, rolled her eyes and, in her lovely Texan drawl, asked them, "Why?"

In other words... Iraq can do this. There is nothing intrinsically lacking from, or different about, Iraq in terms of its ability and even its desire for civil liberties such as we take for granted. (Side note: we take them so much for granted that recently I saw a button in a novelty store that said, "Oh well, I wasn't using my civil liberties anyway." The irony inherent in that button's even existing must have escaped both its manufacturers and the store.) All it lacks is time to get up the learning curve. We can give Iraq that time - and it's obvious to the Administration and me, among others, that it is in our national and moral interests to do so. Unfortunately not everyone seems to agree.

Two more years.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Waste of time

I've spent time recently at Asymmetrical Information and am flat-out depressed: Megan McArdle has not only come to believe that going into Iraq was a mistake (with which I disagree completely - none of the strategic reasons for doing so at the time have changed, as far as I can see), but has opened her forum to a bunch of ninnies who all just want to chant, "We were right, you war-mongers were wrong," incessantly. Now, whatever gets them through the night, I guess... but what I hate about Megan's original post is that its subject is, "I was wrong - discuss!"

It's possible, pig, as Westley said, that those of us who supported (and, in my case, continue to support) the Iraq invasion were wrong to do so. We can never know, of course, because we don't have a handy parallel universe in which to test the other case. It's certain that people at all levels have made mistakes in prosecuting, not the invasion, but the reconstruction/stabilization period, but that's no different from any other war or aftermath thereof. I can concede and in fact insist that a "postmortem," a debrief, a lessons-learned session of seriousness and length is appropriate, because how else can we avoid the mistakes in future?

But to provide nothing but an opportunity for snarky folk who think it's the height of wit to refer to Bush as Dear Leader to gloat - that's not only not helpful or productive, it's darn close to pandering in my eyes. Poor Megan... She lives and works in Manhattan, and the pressures brought to bear on her must be extreme, just through the course of her day. But I do so wish that she could've kept her confession to herself - because we're in Iraq and must make the best decisions we can, now, about what to do next. Providing fuel for the pitiful birthday candle that passes for "fire" among the particular doves she attracted to that post doesn't assist anyone in that effort.

Yeah. I know. We in the 101st Chairborne aren't going to be the deciders. But we, the American people, are going to have influence over our representatives, and the nature of the blogosphere combined with the nature of Washington are such that (a) we don't know how influential a few emails to any one Congressperson will be, nor (b) do we know how many blog readers are going to be influenced to send those emails by a blog like AI.

Naturally it also irks me on a sheer emotional level to watch valuable pixels being used for "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah" with - still! - no consideration or discussion of where to go from here. Megan's critics took exception to her claim that just because "the doves were right," it wasn't through their perspicacity; they predicted all kinds of direness that didn't come to pass and were therefore correct only by chance. Those critics had a point of a sort; there were in fact anti-invasion people bringing up the possibility of insurgency and destabilization before the invasion. But - and this is where those critics' "rightness" falls right off the page - those were far from the loudest or most quoted voices, nor can I quite believe, listening to Megan's commenters, that they, the commenters, were stroking their chins and nodding sagely in agreement with Pat Buchanan back in the day.

And here's the next place where I feel confident in predicting that those critics will turn to the logic they just rejected: they'll say that since they were "right" about not invading, they're also right, now, about pulling out altogether. It Does Not Follow. If the common goal is a stable, moderate Iraq, Iraq the Model one might say, which, as a significant benefit, also serves as a demonstration that it's possible to be prosperous as a nation and part of the Middle East (and not Israel) at the same time, it's incomprehensible to me and to everyone on my side of this debate how leaving Iraq at this time will accomplish that goal. The only way that an early pullout appears to be a viable choice is if the goal is something else.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Band-Aid for Iraq?

In short, no, again via Instapundit, which is the only blog I get a chance to read pretty much every day now.

No, but as usual, opponents of an Iraq strategy that involves making an actual positive difference in the Middle East (and, always, importantly, in our own position and security therewith, or else we would be irresponsible as a nation to undertake it) focus on the one factoid they appear able to comprehend, or at any rate willing to sound off about: 21,500 troops. What they - the forces of both troop reduction and troop increase - consistently fail to talk about, and have failed to talk about all along with regard to their own competing proposals (such as they've been), is what to do with the troops. For over a year I've been listening to and growing increasingly frustrated with demands that we send "more troops" (sometimes with a number attached) or that we "bring the troops home," either precipitously or gradually - with no discussion of tactical change, when a change in troop strength, up or down, clearly implies a change in tactics.

But we do indeed have a change in tactics. 21,500 more troops (which, I heard pointed out by a Republican Senator whose name I missed on NPR yesterday, still leaves the total number of coalition troops in Iraq at a level below that total last year at this time), primarily deployed in Baghdad, where current troop strength is just 13,000. An almost 150% increase in troops, in the area that most needs them, since anyone paying attention is aware that the vast majority of Iraq is already stable, with Baghdad the primary hotspot. Does that sound better than "a niggling 21,500 added to the 140,000 already there"? Furthermore, a concomitant change in the rules of engagement: the Shi'ite militias are now an explicit target, a monopoly on the use of armed force by the duly elected Iraqi government an explicit goal. And still furthermore, a commitment from that same duly elected Iraqi government to bury the militias, in spite of sympathy to them at high levels.

So the race against the clock continues. We have two years from next week, or so, to stabilize Baghdad and provide the nascent moderate democracy of Iraq with a margin of safety in which to operate; after that, we have to assume a worst-case scenario involving a rabid dove in the White House who would rather play to the crowds (when was the last time the Great American Public was consulted so often and taken so seriously in the matter of how to prosecute a war?) and "bring our boys home" without regard to the price of that action.

As I started saying in, oh, 2005 or so, please, Democrats - for the sake of the children you tend to trot out at convenient moments, nominate someone with some foreign policy credibility and a will to maintain the American Moment.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Again with the slippery slope

Via the mighty Instapundit, an AP story on indicates that amniotic fluid is a "plentiful source of stem cells." These aren't embryonic stem cells, which theoretically can become any type of cell at all but, in an ethical Catch-22, must be "harvested" from an embryo that is destroyed in the harvesting; but they're promising and apparently very malleable, according to the Wake Forest researchers doing the work.

As a free marketeer, I have to conclude that R&D on stem cells would eventually have gotten to this point - exploring amniotic fluid rather than destruction of embryos, since, if researchers were able to withdraw the stem cells without damage to mother or baby as they say there were, the implication is clear that there are lots and lots of stem cells in there (you're not sucking out a pint or two of amniotic fluid in search of half a dozen cells). I'd assume that an extraction method that amounts to amniocentesis is cheaper than in-vitro fertilization, or in-vivo followed by intact removal of the embryo (I have no idea whether they're proposing that means as a viable stem cell generator).

However, I'm also inferring, rightly or wrongly, that the pressure on researchers to come up with "non-controversial" sources of stem cells is hastening that progression. In other words, if there were no ethical issue with destroying human embryos in order to harvest their cells, we'd just be doing it that way - no fuss, no muss. I'm deeply grateful to those in the public sphere who are bringing that pressure to bear, since the last line of the AP story is, "[Dr. George Daley] began work last year to clone human embryos to produce stem cells[,]" pretty much exactly what those of us on my side of the debate have been fearing and warning against: human cloning - creating a construct that would, if (able and) allowed to grow to viability, be a human being by anyone's definition - with the express purpose of killing that construct and harvesting its parts, further cheapening human life by sanctioning not just its creation (I'll reluctantly give you "potential creation" if there's the usual hair to be split about when a human embryo constitutes a human life) but its destruction at the whim of a scientist.

I'm no Luddite. I believe that private research should go where it will, and that private research is bound to be a more fruitful field than government-sponsored research. But I also believe that bioethics is not just for fun, and that there are important and difficult ethical issues with the intermediate steps between, say, cloning followed by destruction within a few days and in-situ cloning of organs or limbs (the pipe dream I'd love to see fulfilled).

Let me be even more explicit. There's a slippery slope inherent in embryonic stem-cell research: today we create an embryo in vitro and destroy it at, say, the blastocyst stage - what is that, eight cells? sixteen? - in order to take advantage of the total malleability of its cells, a potential that to date remains unrealized; tomorrow, what? If a human embryo created for this purpose is valueless except as a collection of spare parts, what about any other human embryo? and if it's possible, and ethically acceptable, to grow liver cells from embryonic stem cells (hey, it's possible to grow them from adult stem cells - but so far, no go with the embryonic variety, I understand), how much easier would it be, with this valueless embryo, just to let its highly efficient and nearly perfect built-in mechanism work to create a whole liver for you, then harvest that liver, discarding the rest of the spare parts that aren't needed? And while you're at it, why not wait until it's easiest of all to harvest that liver - after the embryo is no longer encased in a uterus? (Of course we'd want to avoid the word "born" there.)

And as I've said before, the logical fallacy of the slippery slope argument is that the dreaded outcome is inevitable, not that it's possible. I think it's hard to argue that such an outcome as I've described is impossible. Likely? Not in a literal tomorrow, or next year; but a whole lot of people in the southwestern United States were in the past, and possibly still are, willing to cross the border looking for medicaments and treatments that hadn't passed FDA muster; where's the barrier to a black market in baby parts? Adult parts are a bit easier to keep track of, because the adult from whom they come has a history; but if the goal is getting a useful part out of a "mature embryo" and then discarding the "mature embryo," all you need is a human broodmare and an incinerator. And an ethical atmosphere that refuses to acknowledge that there's something deeply disturbing about creating human (or potentially human) life with the intent only of destroying it.