Friday, August 31, 2007

We Report, Who Decides?

Report Finds Little Progress On Iraq Goals -
One of eight political benchmarks -- the protection of the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature -- has been achieved, according to the draft. On the others, including legislation on constitutional reform, new oil laws and de-Baathification, it assesses failure.
The protection of the rights of minority political parties. This, less than a month after the Sunni bloc of Parliament walked out mid-session. This, after two hundred died in a suicide bomb attack on a Kurdish Yazidi sect. And that's just in the last thirty days.

The report claims that "de-Baathification" has failed. Have they not heard? The U.S. has been strenuously trying to re-Baathify Iraq. The Army has been recruiting and arming Sunni militias. They've been chiding al-Maliki for not kowtowing to the wishes of Sunni politicians.

Ioz makes the point that we have no reason to trust a report issued by the same government that is occupying the country being reported on. But that's a very Ollie Stone view of the federal government of the U.S. The government is not some monolithic entity. It's a series of competing factions, all of whom pledge nominal allegiance to the same godhead. The GAO faction has just issued a report, which the Democratic faction will make a lot of noise about, the Executive faction will pretend to acknowledge and the Journalist faction will foam about for four days and then forget. Meanwhile, the troops going from house to house in Basra will, if they hear about it, scratch their dented helmets and say, "De-Baathification? Shit, is it that time of year again?"

Monday, August 27, 2007

I'm Afraid of Americans

We never thought the day would come when we'd disagree with Ioz. Consider this a temporary hiccup in what has been, so far, a long and beautiful friendship.

First off, any sentence which begins "The fact that so many Americans read The Quiet American ..." cannot be taken seriously, no matter what follows the ellipsis. So few Americans have read Graham Greene. One of the great wits and keen insights of the twentieth century (evangelical Christian or no), Greene deserves a wider audience than the occasional college classroom. We wonder what Bill Kristol would have to say re: Greene's "Vietnam defeatism" upon reading The Quiet American - until he discovered that it was written in 1955.

Second, Alden Pyle does not appear to be naive. Alden Pyle is naive. He has a great amount of espionage sophistication, sure. He knows just who to talk to and just what disasters to engineer in order to put General The in power. But he's a child. He genuinely believes in the redemptive power of the West's saving touch. You can tell it in the eager nature of his confessions: his desire to find a common creed with the West's other representative in Saigon (the aged and cynical Fowler). You can tell it in the health food sandwiches he eats.

Alden Pyle is naive because he has not yet realized that "war" means "babies killed by bomb shrapnel." Thomas Fowler is cynical because he has.

We do agree with Ioz on one point: the poor choice of the word "bumbled." America did not bumble into Vietnam. The Armed Forces did not misstep. They executed their duties with the full efficiency available to them - the systematic effort to wipe out an insurgency (read: a civilian population) - and used every weapon at their disposal. The only bumbling came from the intellectuals back home, who defended Vietnam as a front in the War On Terror Fascism Communism. The only missteps came from thinkers who believed the Evil Empire was the one the U.S. was fighting.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Ineffable Gap Between Dream and Reality

Tony Karon suggests that the U.S. is asking the wrong questions on Iran:
Imagine, for a moment, that U.S. troops invading Iraq had, as they neared Baghdad, been fired on by an artillery unit using shells filled VX nerve gas — an attack that would have lasted minutes before a U.S. aircrew had taken out the battery, and may have brought a horrible death to a handful of American soldiers. Imagine, further, that the conquering troops had later discovered two warehouses full of VX and mustard gas shells. And later, that inspectors in a science lab had discovered a refrigerator full of Botulinum toxin or even anthrax.

The Administration and its allies in the punditocracy would have “proved” their case for war, and the media would have hailed President Bush as the kind of Churchillian visionary that he imagines himself to be. And goodness knows what new adventures the Pentagon ideologues would have immediately begun planning.

Now, ask yourself, had the above scenario unfolded and the “case for war” (on the terms accepted by the media and the Democrats) been proven, would Iraq look any different today? Would it be any less of a bloodbath; any less of a quagmire for U.S. troops; any less of a geopolitical disaster; any less of a drain on U.S. blood and treasure? Would the U.S. mainland or U.S. interests and allies worldwide be any safer today? In short, would the Iraq invasion seem any less of a catastrophic strategic blunder had the U.S. discovered some caches of unconventional weapons in Iraq?

The answer to all of those questions is obviously no.
WMDs are such an old, hoary lie (it takes a true poltroon like Jim Lileks to keep pushing the "Saddam had chemical weapons!" story) that we forget sometimes that they were the loudest and most prominent justification for invasion. But the quantity of nerve gas in Baghdad - be it a molecule, a mole or a metric tonne - has nothing to do with the thousand year old tensions between Shia and Sunni, or the uncertain position of the Kurds. And yet all of that is what's making Iraq such a hell today.

Clearly, "does Saddam have WMDs?" was the wrong question.

Keep that in mind as the discussion turns toward the (inevitable) invasion of Iran. Granted, there are certain questions of moral weight to answer first:

For the record:

  • First, there is no evidence that Iran is actually building a nuclear weapon; merely that it is building a civilian nuclear energy program with all elements of the fuel cycle permissible under the NPT that would, in fact, put nuclear weapons easily within reach should they opt to build them.

  • Second, even if Iran did possess nuclear weapons, the idea that it would use them to initiate a conflict in which Tehran would certainly be destroyed is based on tabloid-style alarmism about the nature of the regime in Tehran — in fact, Iran’s Islamic Republic has long proved to be guided more by unsentimental realpolitik than by revolutionary fervor in the pursuit of its national interests and regional influence.

  • Third, Iran is not “interfering” in Afghanistan and Iraq any more than the U.S. is; it has close ties with the dominant Shiite and Kurdish parties that represent three quarters of Iraqis, for whom its involvement in Iraq is welcome. Thus the recent rebuke to Bush by both Karzai and Maliki on the question of Iran’s role in their countries. Even the Administration’s claims that Iran is targeting U.S. troops in Iraq are largely unproven: In a remarkably shallow treatment of complaints about the New York Times coverage of the issue, its public editor concedes simply that the Times should have told readers of its previous coverage to provide “context” — there is no serious questioning of the contention that because Iran has been known to supply the know-how to build “Explosively Formed Projectiles” (EFPs), any time an EFP is used in an attack on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the perpetrators are an Iranian proxy. This is worth dwelling on, because it’s typical of the ignorance on various issues — the extent of President Ahmedinajad’s authority in Iran, for example — propagated by the Times. A simple technical exposition of what an EFP is reveals that the technology is easily copied by anyone with know-how and access to very basic munitions. It’s not an actual weapon; it’s a method of building an improvised explosive device to pierce armor. The idea that the use of EFPs in Iraq is automatically a fingerprint of Iran is ridiculous. Someone ought to tell the Times. And by the way, even if Iranian proxies were attacking U.S. forces in Iraq, that wouldn’t signal intent to undermine the Iraqi government; it would simply be an escalation of the secret war between Washington and Tehran. And that’s a war that this President, his deepest psychological scars laid bare by his failure in Iraq — a wound that the psychotic Dick Cheney will press and press — may be ready to escalate by launching an attack on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Indeed, it is not Iranian “interference” that Iraq and Afghanistan fear; it is being caught in the crossfire between the U.S. and Iran.

  • 1938? Don’t make me laugh. Nazi Germany was the most powerful military nation on earth, and in 1938 it was poised to invade its neighbors. To make the same claim about Iran is just plain ignorant.
  • (the above is Karon again, by the way)

    So, let's ask the same questions that should have been asked about Iraq: can the U.S. win a land war in Iran? No:
    Iran is scarier than Iraq in every way you can name. First of all, it's physically way bigger, three times the size of Iraq. The population is 65 million, nearly three times as many as Iraq. The Iranians are young, too. Their birthrate is way down now, around 2 kids per woman, but back in the Khomeini years it was one of the highest in the world. So right now, the Iranian population has a demographic profile that's a military planner's dream: not too many little kids to take care of, but a huge pool of fighting-age men -- about 18 million.

    And it won't be just young, fit men fighting us. Thanks to the invention of the suicide car bomb, guerrilla commanders will have someplace to send 70 year old volunteers: down to the garage to pick up a Plymouth packed full of fertilizer bomb. You don't have to be young to put the pedal to the metal.


    The Iranians, unlike the Iraqis, have always been willing to die for their country. In the Iran-Iraq War (1980-89) thousands of Iranians volunteered to charge across Iraqi minefields, knowing they were going to die. It scared the Hell out of the Iraqis. They threw everything at those crazy Persian suicide charges, even poison gas. And the Iranians just kept coming.


    The Iranians already hate us. They have since 1953, when the CIA staged a coup to get rid of a popular Lefty Prime Minister, Mossadeq. Way back in the 70s, when most of the world still kinda liked us, crowds in Tehran chanted "Marg bar Amrika," "Death to America."

    We're also getting told we'll be able to exploit the ethnic divisions inside Iran. The fact is, Iran's ethnic problems are nowhere near as bad as Iraq's. More than half of the population is ethnically Persian. The next-biggest group is the Azerbaijani, about a quarter of the population. They squabble with the Iranian majority from time to time, but they're fellow Shi'ites, they intermarry all the time- there's no real hatred between them. There are a few Arabs in Western Iran, maybe 3% of the population. But if you're thinking we could bring them over to our side, forget it. Saddam already tried that during the Iran-Iraq War and got nowhere. And if they're not going to rebel for a fellow Arab who lives next door, you better believe they won't rise up to help us Christian Crusaders.

    That leaves us with the Kurds, who are about 10% of the Iranian population. There are all kinds of factions in Kurdistan, all of them armed and ready to kill each other, so we might be able to sign up a few of the really crazy gangs to work with us. But they would have zero chance of controlling a country as big, fierce and clever as Iran.
    That's what the U.S. has to look forward to in Iran. Remember, both of the two leading Democratic candidates for President - Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - voted in favor of a resolution that will be used to justify invading Iran. And no leading Republican candidate is any more rational on the matter.

    U.S. casualties in Iraq have been relatively light so far. In Iran, there will be a slaughterhouse without end.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    A Well-Functioning Machine

    The plan has always been a civil war (via UO):
    But what do you think “As they stand up, we’ll stand down,” means, anyway? It means and meant getting Iraqis to fight other Iraqis. We’ve taught Shiites and Kurds - in Iraqi Security Force uniforms - to attack Sunnis. Increasingly we enjoin Shiites to attack other Shiites (ISF vs Mahdi Army) and Sunnis to attack other Sunnis (tribal alliances versus Al-Qaeda in Iraq).


    No, I don’t think the US intended grand-scale ethnic cleansing and mass-casualty sectarian bombings. I think that even so reptilian an overlord as Dick Cheney regrets that part, at least reflexively. But it’s a spiraling dynamic we set in motion. Want to bring armed elements of Iraqi society to heel using Iraqi forces? Do those armed elements have a level of popular support? Congratulations: you want an Iraqi civil war. A nice tiny one, maybe. But a civil war.
    We quibble with Jim in only one respect - whether or not Cheney "wanted" massive internecine slaughter in Mesopotamia. We suggest that, frankly, he didn't care.

    This is how you can tell your imperialist machine is working - when the gross, awful evidence of what you intend stands in naked view (Iraqis slaughtering each other at the behest of their Western overlords) and nobody seriously objects. If Dick Cheney kidnapped Kurds and Iraqis and made them fight to the death on a private island for his own enjoyment, the world would recoil in horror. If he says it's "so we don't have to fight them here," people debate him on those terms (how effective is the bloodsport in Fallujah at preventing terrorism in the U.S.?). But nobody asks whether it's objectionable on face that the U.S. is there in the first place.

    Monday, August 13, 2007

    Why Iraq Is Falling Apart

    Who Is IOZ?: Bref
    In the 1920s, following the first World War and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the British took over territorial Iraq under a League of Nations Mandate, imposed a Sunni Hashemite monarchy, dropped white phosphorous on the Kurds, and enacted a series of land reforms that allowed Sunni tribal leaders to consolidate property, wealth, and political power. For the next fifty years, Iraq was governed by a Sunni monarchy, a Sunni-dominated pseudo-republican military regime, a Sunni-dominated technocratic elite, and finally a Sunni strongman in the form of Saddam Hussein.

    Five years ago, the United States invaded Iraq, deposed its Sunni dictator, stripped the Sunni minority of its sinecures in goverment and largely of its right to participate in government, and, bowing to pressure from a now-empowered Shi'ite majority, sponsored parliamentary elections which, unsurprisingly, resulted in a Shia-dominated goverment. The Shi'ite government naturally allied itself with the coreligionist government of neighboring Iran. The remnants of the Sunni government and military apparatus began an insurgent campaign. Shia groups organized militias and began to exact revenge for past repressions as well as to enact their own repressions of the remaining Sunni population. A variety of terrorist groups, some with ties to major Iraqi factions, others loyal to more radical, less nationalistic agendas filtered into the cracks and began blowing shit up.

    The United States, fixated on Iran as its next great enemy, began to identify Shia groups with Iranian affinities as its principle enemy in Iraq. The Shi'ite government with its many ties to both Iran and to Shia militias, began supporting the idea that terrorists were the principle enemy in Iraq. The Sunni insurgents, seeking to arm themselves against their Shia masters, began cooperating with the Americans in combating "al Qaeda" in order to gain weapons and funds. The Americans, reacting to domestic political opposition to the idea of refereeing a civil war between Sunni and Shia acceeded to the idea that it was "al Qaeda" and "foreign fighters" causing the most damange in Iraq. This had the added benefit of allowing American politicians to blame perpetual bogeyman Iran. Iran, after all, is foreign to both America and Iraq. Who cares if the terrorists are or are not separated from the Iranian government by a thousand-year-old religious schism? America, in any event, gave everybody even more guns than they already had. This, my friends, is the strategy.
    All of the above is objectively true (except for the last sentence, which is so well-documented an assertion as to almost be textbook factual).

    Please! Will some Iraq hawk tell us what the "plan for victory" is here?

    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    God of the Gaps

    Eliezer Yudkowsky at Overcoming Bias: Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable
    Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works. In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe. But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud and grasshoppers having four legs. (Which is a metaphor for...)

    Back in the old days, saying the local religion "could not be proven" would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn't even know the difference.
    We've made this same point ourselves in the past. The idea that certain parts of the Bible are just colorful metaphors or instructive parables, and that certain parts are to be taken at unannealed face value, is a rather recent invention:
    If we accept that it's okay to adhere to Jesus's exhortations to charity, but to ignore Deuteronomy's commands to stone heretics and burn adulterers, then what criteria are we using for such selection? What filter do we pass the 'word of god' through, that healing the sick emerges but slaying the infidel is left behind? Whatever this filter is, whatever benchmarks we use to determine what parts of the Bible to follow and what to ignore, it must obviously be taken from outside the Bible itself. For the Bible itself does not instruct its readers to ignore anything that sounds "barbaric" or "outdated"; the Bible does not invite you to pick and choose. So if the Bible's more moderate adherents apply some sort of filter to it, that filter must - of necessity - come from their own moral sense.
    As Yudkowsky points out in the Overcoming Bias post - read it in its entirety, it's a gem - religion used to make plenty of Unambiguous Pronouncements about law, nature, cosmology, sexuality, history and ethical behavior. Western civilization has slowly come to realize that none of those Pronouncements were, in fact, true ... except in the fields of ethics and metaphysics. And from thence the claim that religion is a "seperate magisterium" - meant to answer the "why" questions while science is left brushing its feet in the "how"s.

    But are ethics any less scientific than biology, a subject on which the scientific method has shown the Bible to be unquestionably wrong? Ethics is the study of how we ought to act. We hypothesize that certain actions will yield certain results. We study history and current events to see if those hypotheses bear out. Certainly, the muddle between different teleological schools of thought makes the science of ethics harder to pin down than biology. But biology has gone through its feuds as well and scientists have not stopped trying to uncover its secrets.

    The case for atheism - the case against God - is as strong today as it's ever been. Only tomorrow will it be stronger.