Saturday, August 21, 2004

Requiescat in Pacem, Swiftboat Liars

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.

-- Ecclesiastes 11:1

Below are the full texts of all three bronze star citations awarded in connection with the events of 13 March 1969 on the Bay Hap river, in South Vietnam -- this being the very same incident during which former Green Beret Jim Rassman's life was saved, under fire, by a wounded John Kerry (if you believe Rassman and Kerry's crewmates), or else during which John Kerry, unwounded, merely helped Rassman back into his boat, with no hostile fire going on, and then later lied about it to get himself a Bronze Star he did not deserve (if you believe Larry Thurlow and the other anti-Kerry swift boat veterans). The United States Navy reports, you decide:

Bronze Star Citation for Petty Officer Lambert
"For meritorious achievement while serving with Coastal Division ELEVEN engaged in armed conflict against Viet Cong communist aggressors in An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on 13 March 1969. Inshore Patrol Craft 51, with Petty Officer Lambert serving as Leading Petty Officer, was conducting a SEA LORDS operation in the Bay Hap river with four other boats. The boats were exiting the river when a mine detonated under another Inshore Patrol Craft, inflicting heavy damage to the boat and wounding the entire crew. At the same time, all units came under small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks. Inshore Patrol Craft 51 immediately proceeded to aid the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft, where the Officer-in-Charge leaped aboard to render assistance. Petty Officer LAMBERT assumed command of Inshore Patrol Craft 51 and directed accurate suppressing fire at the enemy. While administering first aid to the crew of the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft, Inshore Patrol Craft 51's Officer-in-Charge was knocked overboard. Petty Officer LAMBERT, without hesitation, directed Inshore Patrol Craft 51 alongside his Officer-in-Charge, where, from an exposed position and with complete disregard for his personal safety, he pulled him aboard. Petty Officer LAMBERT then returned his Officer-in-Charge to the aid of the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft and remained in command of Inshore Patrol Craft 51 until all units cleared the river. Petty Officer LAMBERT's coolness, professionalism and courage under fire significantly contributed to the rescue of his Officer-in-Charge and the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."


Bronze Star Citation for Lieutenant JG Thurlow
"For heroic achievement while serving with Costal Division ELEVEN engaged in armed conflict against Viet Cong communist aggressors in An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on 13 March1969. Lieutenant (junior grade) THURLOW was serving as Officer in Charge of Inshore Patrol Craft 51, one of five boats conducting a SEA LORDS operation in the Bay Hap river. While exiting the river, a mine detonated under another Inshore Patrol Craft. At the same time, all units began receiving enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks. Lieutenant (junior grade) THURLOW immediately directed the coxswain of his boat to assist the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft. Despite enemy bullets flying about him, he leaped aboard the damaged boat and began rendering first aid and assessing damage to the boat. While attending to the forward gunner, he was knocked overboard. He managed to remain afloat until pulled from the water. He quickly radioed for medical evacuation of the wounded and, while still under fire, with complete disregard for his personal safety, returned aboard the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft. Lieutenant (junior grade) THURLOW remained aboard the stricken boat until it had safely cleared the area. His actions and courage in the face of enemy fire were instrumental in the medical evacuation of the wounded and salvaging the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."


Bronze Star Citation for Lieutenant JG Kerry
"For heroic achievement while serving with Coastal Division ELEVEN engaged in armed conflict with Viet Cong communist aggressors in An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on 13 March 1969. Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY was serving as Officer-in-Charge of Inshore Patrol Craft 94, one of five boats conducting a SEA LORDS operation in the Bay Hap river. While exiting the river, a mine detonated under another Inshore Patrol Craft and almost simultaneously, another mine detonated close aboard his Inshore Patrol Craft knocking a man into the water and wounding Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY in the right arm. In addition, all units began receiving small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks. When Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY discovered he had a man overboard, he returned upriver to assist. The man in the water was receiving sniper fire from both banks. Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY directed his gunners to provide suppressing fire, while from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain and with disregard for his personal safety, he pulled the man aboard. Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY then directed his boat to return and assist the other damaged Inshore Patrol Craft. His crew attached a line and towed the damaged boat to safety. Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY's calmness, professionalism and great personal courage under fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."


To sum up the bare facts:

1. Five swift boats were ambushed on 13 March 1969 in the Bay Hap river.

2. At least two boats, including Kerry's, tripped mines, setting off the ambush.

3. The other of the two mined swift boats (not Kerry's) was disabled.

4. Small arms and automatic weapons immediately opened up from both sides of the river, catching the ambushed boats in a crossfire.

5. Kerry, and the entire crew of the disabled swift boat, were wounded early in the fray.

6. At least two men were thrown overboard during the ambush -- Rassman from Kerry's boat and Thurlow from the disabled boat, which he had boarded in order to assist its crew.

7. With the ambush still going on, Kerry rescued Rassman and Thurlow's second in command, Petty Officer Lambert, rescued Thurlow.

8. Thurlow, Kerry and Lambert worked together to assist the disabled boat's crew and get it out of harm's way.

To which we might now be permitted to add this bit of interpretation: All three men richly deserved their citations.

Now what are the implications of all this? One very sad implication is that Larry Thurlow -- a brave and resourceful young officer in 1969 -- has turned himself into a scurrilous, slandering liar in 2004. He has grossly insulted, not only John Kerry's heroism and service, but his own, and that of his former Petty Officer as well -- and, by extension, he has profoundly insulted "the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service." In short, one who covered himself in glory by his selfless actions in support of his fellow sailors 35 years ago, has now covered himself in shame by his base and reprehensible lies in attacking their service (and the memory of his own). And he has done this for nothing more exalted than some passing political advantage. One would have thought that such a man's honor would come -- if indeed he were willing to part with it at all -- at a somewhat higher price.

No one who has thus dishonored himself, and personally betrayed his former comrades-in-arms, should expect now to have anything he says about them taken seriously. No group, endorsing such charges, or accepting the leadership of such a man, can expect to have any other charges it may happen to make, or indeed anything at all it may happen to say, taken seriously. And no candidate for President of the United States, profiting politically from the actions of such a group, and tolerating its funding and assistance by his close political friends and associates, and repeatedly refusing opportunities to denounce its vicious calumnies upon the honor of good men, can expect to be taken seriously either, when he claims not to be questioning the service of the man who is the principal target of those lies.

This is, for me, cased closed. I feel a little as Lincoln must have after he finished demolishing Douglass's "sacred right of self-government" defense of the Nebraska bill: "I have done with this mighty argument..." of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. "Go, sacred thing! Go in peace."

Friday, August 20, 2004

Latest on the Swift Boat Veterans for Making Shit Up

The high level:
  • Another anti-Kerry swiftvet discredited

  • Kerry turns his boat into the ambush

  • The mainstream media wake up and smell the coffee

The details:
Digby is right, look who we have: O'Neill the Nixon hatchetman, Corsi the raving bigot, Elliott the walking self-contradiction, and now Thurlow the proven liar, to which we can add the Texas GOP mafia, led by Rove's big butter and egg man, Bob Perry. They are a joke, a great big sick one, at the expense of our faltering political discourse. And every day now that Bush continues his tacit support of them is another day he sinks further into the muck and mire.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Bush v. Kerry on the Issues (Yes, Issues, Imagine That!)

A friend of mine who is a Bush supporter sent me an email today containing a longish list of fairly substantive criticisms of Kerry and (mostly) defenses of Bush. Since the list seemed like a pretty thorough expression of a very pro-Bush, but still quite reasonable political viewpoint (no reliance on character assassination here), and since I didn't have time to craft a suitable reply while at work, I thought I would post my reply here instead, in the interests of promoting the rational discussion of sharp policy differences. I thank my friend for his useful provocation. The words in italics are his, those in standard font my own.

When you applied for your current job, did you list everything you did in the grade school, or middle school, and hang your hopes on your accomplishments in that stage of life? I'm using this as an analogy with respect to Kerry basing everything on his tour of duty. I don't understand why he won't rely on his accomplishments since 9-11 or let's say within the last ten years.

It's a considerable exaggeration that Kerry is relying exclusively on his record of service in Vietnam, although I realize it is a common claim among right-wing commentators. As far as sustantive accomplishments in later life are concerned, I think I have already covered the ground pretty well in a previous post so I won't repeat that answer here.

As to Kerry's subtantive plans for the future: He has an extensive, detailed set of policy proposals that are, and have been for some time, publicly available. But even at on a general level, he has a very clear set of policy differences with George Bush, most of which involve, of course, repairing the neglect and failures of the present administration. Here are some highlights:
  • On the economy
    • Retain the middle-class portion of the tax cuts to ease the burden of declining real wages and provide continued stimulus at a time of significant under-utilization of capacity
    • Repeal the upper-bracket portion of the Bush tax cuts in order to:
    • Start restoring long-term fiscal balance in advance of Baby Boomer retirements, and
    • Finance sorely neglected human capital and homeland security investments

  • On Health care
    • Off-load catastrophic coverage from private carriers, thereby eliminating the main source of adverse selection (i.e., reducing the perverse incentives that keep the competition among private insurers from driving coverage costs down).
    • Open the federal employee health plan to all, creating a purchaser of last resort with a great deal of market power.

  • On Iraq
    • Internationalize the transitional peace-keeping operation, trading exclusive control over outcomes (which won't be worth anything anyway, if we fail to stand up a legitimate successor regime) for real burden sharing among allies.

  • On homeland security
    • Add two new divisions to increase the Army's ability to deal with low-intensity combat situations without overstretching forces and endangering recruitment and reenlistment via extended deployments and other "backdoor draft" measures.
    • Train more special forces, and train them better, for operations in failed and failing states.
    • Significantly expand and improve the efficiency of inspections at ports of entry and border crossings.
    • Deploy more and smarter security at high-value targets such as nuclear reactors, chemical plants, etc.
    • Significantly expand funding for, and step up the pace of, nonproliferation efforts worldwide, especially in the "loose nukes" belt of the former Soviet Union.
    • Save billions in misdirected defense dollars by essentially mothballing the always-unworkable and now strategically obsolete ballistic missile shield (SDI/Star Wars).
    • And, of course, return the focus of counter-terrorism efforts to al Qaeda, where they belong, and avoid getting distracted by second- and third-order threats (like Iraq under Saddam Hussein).

President Bush does have many faults but the three items you list here [They are: 1. Bush's failure to create any net jobs while in office; 2. The lack of WMD or Al Qaeda ties to justify the Iraq war; and 3. The failure to secure the Iraqi peace. -- ed.] are in my opinion related and kind of hand-me-down problems from President Clinton.

I don't think your counter-arguments put much of a dent in my major citicisms of Bush's policy failures, but I'll defend each one of those criticisms in turn. Here we go.

I am of the belief that the economy was artificially boosted in the 90's and with the tech bubble bursting (panic of Y2K) in conjunction with 9-11, the economy took a beating that has taken this long to recover from.

This, if I may say so, is your weakest argument -- and it is very, very weak indeed. By this logic, Jimmy Carter was responsible for the recession and subsequent expansion that occured under Ronald Reagan, Reagan is to be blamed for Bush I's recession and the weak, jobless recovery that followed, and Bush I himself deserves praise for Clinton's long prosperity. No economist not on the administration's (or a right-wing think tank's) payroll would defend this kind of wild interpretatation of macroeconomic cause and effect. I'm sorry, but this is magical thinking, not serious economic analysis.
  • To repeat what I originally said about this: Between 1932 and 2000 the country endured: depression, recessions, shooting wars, superpower nuclear showdowns, twin oil crises. Do you really think Bush's challenges on the economic front have been unprecedented? No, this will not fly. Other administrations have faced as bad and worse. Only Bush's abject failure to meet that challenge is novel.

  • In detail:
    • All economic boom times are accompanied by a froth of speculation. There is nothing new about that.
    • There was nothing "artificial" about 24 million new jobs created, and rising real incomes for the first time since the early '70's -- both achievements of what was, let us not forget, the longest expansion in post-war economic history.
    • The idea that a recession or slow down should be as bad as the expansion that preceeded it was good is more magical thinking, not economics. If Keynes had achieved nothing else, he would deserve infinite honor for demolishing this particular bit of moralistic nonsense.
    • Bush could have purchased much more insurance against the premature exhaustion of monetary remedies to lagging job growth, and he could have done so for a fraction of what he paid (or, rather, what future taxpayers will someday pay) for his upper-bracket tax cuts. I can only assume that he chose not to do this because he cared much, much more about directing massive tax breaks to the very rich than he did about making sure that jobs would be abundant and well-paying for the great majority of working Americans.

As far as Iraq goes, good riddance. Saddam & his government were dirty, corrupt savages and I'll bet you anything that the WMDs are in Syria or Iran. For heaven sakes, during the Gulf war, Iraq took all it's fighter jets to Iran for safe haven, why couldn't they have done the same with their WMDs?

I'll take this as a two-part counter-argument. The first part is by far the stronger of the two, and the strongest of all your arguments:
  • Was getting rid of Saddam worth it anyway, despite the lack of WMD or al Qaeda connections?
    • For the people of Iraq, maybe it was. But, even here, the jury is still out. If some kind of reasonably stable successor regime can be established, that is less ruthless than Saddam was in keeping order, but at least somewhat as effective in holding the state together, then it will probably be looked back on by Iraqis as on balance a good thing for them that the U.S. did the deed. If, however, when the U.S. leaves, an extended period of state failure and civil war insues, and/or the reestablishment of strong-man dictatorship, future Iraqi historians will probably be a good deal less charitable.
    • Even, however, if it turns out to have been a good thing for Iraq, it is very unlikley to wind up being a good decision for the U.S., on balance, and given the then-available alternatives. It has cost, so far, about 1,000 military deaths, $150 billion, and over a year and a half of overextension, paralysis and distraction on all other foreign policy matters -- including several that were considerably more urgent for our national security than the issue of Iraq. And for what?
    • As far as goals that are in the national interest of the United States, we had a very cost-effective alternative back before Bush launched his war, namely the combination of agressive diplomacy backed by the credible threat of the use of force. As argued before, this strategy was working very well to diffuse what was, after all, a second- or third-order threat national security threat.

  • Could the WMD have been removed to a third country or third party?
    • Well, this is very, very unlikely, given what we now know, for certain, about the (not very great) extent of Saddam Hussein's WMD "program," such as it was.
    • If it somehow were true, however, it would be very bad news for Bush's war rationale. It was critics of the war who warned that, if Hussein did possess WMD, he would be tempted, upon being invaded, to disperse them to a friendly regime (Syria) or even to give them, in a last ditch attempt to make trouble, to terrorist groups that he would not otherwise trust with them. There is no reason to think any of this happened (since there is no reason to think Hussein had any WMD) but, if it did, it would not be good, to say the least.

Show me any new government -- German, Italian, Japanese -- after WWII that, within one year of [the previous government's] overthrow by the U.S., was operating with a "stable" government. What is a stable government in your opinion? There are lots of countries in the world that don’t operate with a stable government.
  • First, permit me to get some minor historical inaccuracies out of the way:
    • It has already been far longer than a year, and we are not making much visible progress toward stability. (On the contrary, indeed, things only seem to be getting more unstable.)
    • The overthrow of the Nazi regime in Germany was accomplished by the Anglo-American-Soviet alliance -- with the Red Army, most historians would agree, picking up the lion's share of the military burden -- not by the U.S. alone, nor by the U.S. plus some minor allies.
    • Historically, all three countries were in far better shape in terms of internal security by this point. In particular, there was no serious competition for a monopoly of means of violence in any of them.

  • Main point, however, is that these were, indeed, probably historically unique cases and, as such, make lousy precedents for what is happening now in Iraq.
    • The axis, you will recall, had launched virtually simultaneous world wide wars of aggression on multiple fronts.
    • They were utterly defeated in a total war of unprecedented (and, thank the gods, so far unrepeated) ferocity and civilian death and destruction.
    • Our two principle adversaries in that war were highly industrialized and highly unified nation-states, both having had some prior experience with limited, representative government.
    • Lacking all these unique attributes of these historical case(s), most occupations actually go quite badly. The counter-insurgency war we fought to maintain our imperial domination of the Philippines, after annexing that country in the Spanish-American War, took fourteen years and cost 4,000 U.S. and some 200,000 Philippine lives, as George F. Will helpfully reminded us today. This is part of the reason that the Iraq gambit was a very, very bad idea.

  • By "stable" I don't mean anything special. Roughly, that a state can police its own borders, prevent unwanted outside interference in its internal politics, and successfully monopolize the legitimate means of violence internally.

  • There are, yes, a lot of failed and failing states in the world. This is very, very bad for us, because such states make wonderful havens for trans-national terrorists. So it is a really, really dumb idea to go out and make more of them. This is another reason why the Iraq war was bad for U.S. national security.

I believe what Rush Limbaugh has been saying the past few days: that the war on terrorism is actually a war with Iran.
  • I totally disagree -- and not only because the idea of going to Rush Limbaugh for foreign policy analysis strikes me as about as reasonable as going to Dr. Frankenstein for brain surgery. In fact, the kind of thinking Limbaugh is expressing here encourages a continuation of the chief strategic mistake of Bush's entire foreign policy, namely, treating the problem of trans-national, religio-political terrorism as synonymous with the problem of "rogue states." This is the wrong emphasis, as Bush's relative inattention to Afghanistan (a failed state that did house such terrorists), and his parallel obsession with Iraq (a rogue state that did not), has amply demonstrated.

  • All this is not to say that the two issues are unrelated. It's just that the relationships are quite complex and they accordingly call for a, well, nuanced, policy response (or should I risk saying, "sensitive?"):
    • Khomenei's revolution was the first highly visible manifestation of resurgent Islamic fundamentalism.
    • This was itself part of a world-wide fundamentalist resurgence in the seventies, but it was and has remained checked and contained in democratic systems, by the separation of church and state and by counter-vailing powers in civil society that have no interest in rejecting the modern world in favor of a putative return to scriptural purity.
    • All this is definitely a challenge to core liberal-democratic principles, and in that sense constitutes a second world-wide "war of ideas," overlapping with and surviving the previous one we call the Cold War.
    • But the example of the Cold War points to why we need to be very careful, in facing this ideological challenge, not to treat the entire part of the world where it happens to be centered as if it were (in the words of another conservative friend of mine) "one big cesspool."
    • The differences -- in various denomiations, in national circumstances and aspirations, in varying degrees of support for or tolerance of terror, all matter tremendously for the making of effective policy.
    • From the point of view of making good, effective policy that is in the U.S. national interest, igoring these differences would be analogous to, during the Cold War, ignoring for example the enmities between the U.S.S.R. and China, or China and Vietnam, or Vietnam and Cambodia. It would, in other words, be very unwise, strategically speaking, in that it is very likely to encourage the overestimation of certain threats, and the simultaneous missing of opportunities to check or combat other, more pressing threats.

The stinking Mullahs have one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave, yet they are still holding their Kalishnakovs. They are supporting the insurgents in Iraq because their life depends on it. What hell hole can they go to next if the government of Iran is overthrown?
  • They are no doubt supporting the Shi'ia insurgency in the south, though the degree of their support is hard for us to know at this time. It is very likely, I think, that they would support that insurgency against both the Kurds and the Sunni insurgents based in al Anbar, in the event of a civil war. In addition to Iran, it is very likely that Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and others would also involve themselves in internal Iraqi politics if the country broke down along ethno-religious lines. All this is a recipe for a king-sized Lebanon, and constitutes one more set of reasons why this whole thing was a really, really bad idea.

  • However, this present course -- of tacitly supporting the Shi'ia insurgecy -- is a no-lose one for the Iranian Mullahs. Iraq was already a mortal enemy of Iran's before this war started. Supporting their co-religionists inside Iraq gives them an opportunity to keep the latter country weak and divided, and maybe even get a friendly regime stood up in Bhagdad some day. Here we have yet another reason why this war was a really, really bad idea.

  • However, I think you are right that their (the Iranian Mullahs') days are numbered. I do not know the Iranian situation as well as you do, but my observation is that the popular democratic forces there are so strong, and the Mullah's ideology so exhausted and out-of-touch with fundamental social realities, that it is only a matter of time before the latter can no longer muster even the relatively small amount of power required to control the situation through the security services and the military. Iran is destined to be free, I think, and probably sooner, rather than later. But, happily, Iranian civil society -- very much unlike that of Iraq at the end of Saddam's rule -- seems to be very strong, and very much up to the task of waiting the Mullah's out, and then pushing them out, as soon as the opportunity to do so presents itself. Iran, I feel sure, will have it's "fall of the Berlin Wall" moment and, with a little luck and a a lot of discipline on the part of the democratic opposition forces, it might well happen without a single shot being fired.

As far as Bush helping the big businesses and the rich, do you remember the last month of Clinton in office? How many executive orders did he sign? I was ready to puke. If that is not the kettle calling the pot black.
  • I suppose this is some sort of reference to the pardon of -- was it Mark Rich, somebody like that? When I said earlier that your argument about the economy not being Bush's fault was your weakest argument, I wasn't counting this one.

  • But if this wasn't an end-of-email throwaway, and you are seriously contending that Bush is less friendly to the "the rich" than Clinton was (and you can pick your definition of "rich" here), you will have to explain how that could be, given that Clinton sharply raised the top marginal income tax rate, whereas Bush:
    • cut that same top marginal rate (only paid by those with high incomes), wiping out Clinton's increase
    • cut dividend taxes that are overwhelming paid by those who make more money from stock holdings than from wages
    • eliminated the inheritance tax that is exclusively paid by the very rich indeed
    • and now is seeking, as his top (almost his only) domestic policy priority, to make all of these cuts permanent (despite the fact that they were all passed under the -- laughable -- rubric of counter-cyclical "stimulus").

  • I know you are a very smart man, my dear friend, but you would need to be capable of changing the laws of both mathematics and logic to make this one work out for you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Shameless Gloating, Part II

This is getting positively eerie.

First, D.C. eminence gris David Broder practically takes dictation from the Junction in telling his readers that if Bush looses the election it will be because he laid down two long-shot bets against reality -- one on Iraq and one on the economy -- and both came up snake eyes.

And now uber-wonk (and pundit "it" boy) Fareed Zakaria channels my ravings about how Kerry's position on the Iraq War -- that of a moderate realist who seeks the path between isolationist and unilateralist temptations -- is both perfectly consistent over time and, more importantly, the correct position to have taken all along, given what we now know.

I am thinking I may need to move to D.C., pitch a tent on the Mall, hang out my shingle, and work the lunchtime crowds:

The Amazing Amileoj!
Future Conventional Wisdom Foretold!
$1.50 Per Sound Bite
Televised Pundits, $1.00 Extra

Monday, August 16, 2004

Shameless Gloating

Talk about our words coming back to us with an alienated majesty! (Emerson, for those keeping score at home.)

Ten days ago, I put up a post saying that if George Bush loses this election it will be because he placed and lost two very large bets against reality -- one on Iraq and one on jobs and the economy. Now along comes the Dean of the Washington Pundits to say more or less exactly the same thing. If the Junction is going to start serving as an oracle for the chattering classes, so be it -- but Amileoj wants a raise.

The link to the Broder piece comes via the estimable Josh Marshall, who rightly notes that if a plodding but ultra-prominent establishmentarian like Broder has gotten the picture, it must be well on its way to becoming received wisdom throughout the D.C. press corps -- and that, if and when this happens, it probably spells Lights out! for W's teetering reelection chances. Evidently it has begun to occur to the relatively-less somnabulant members of the herd that a considerable precipice is looming just before them, and us -- namely, the prospect of four more years of genuinely abysmal policy making. So commences -- and probably, given the stately pace at which reality dawns upon this crowd, so different from the alacrity with which it flies after phantasms, not a moment too soon -- the slow, arduous work of turning the main body of the herd around.

And while we are on the subjects of alienated majesty and herd animal behavior: In a series of posts during the Democratic primary season (examples here, here, here and here), I defended Wesley Clark (and sometimes also John Kerry) from the charge -- usually being leveled, in those days, from the left and even the center-left -- that there was no coherent position on Iraq between, let's say, Howard Dean on the one side, and George Bush, on the other.

This was foolish nonsense then, and it is foolish nonsense now, when deployed by the right (and indeed by the President himself) against the Democratic party's nominee. To maintain (as Clark and Kerry both did, and do) that it was right to use diplomacy backed by the threat of force to compel Saddam Hussein to reveal the exact extent of his WMD capability, and surrender it; yet wrong to short circuit that process and rush into a war -- and an ill-prepared-for occupation -- at a time when the strategy of diplomacy-plus-force was working, and when the far more pressing job in Afghanistan remained incomplete; -- to maintain these things, I say, was to express a perfectly staightforward preference for a sober middle course between the twin strategic perils of reckless isolationism and reckless unilateralism.

In a word, or rather three: Naive faith in covenants without the sword, Non! Patient but firm diplomacy backed by the threat of force, Oui! Neo-imperial fantasies of remaking the world in our image, Non!

Subsequent events have served as a lavish demonstration of the advantages of such prudence: For it turns out that the inspections were finding what the there was to find (viz., nothing), and doing it without the terrible costs and burdens, and the still-unfathomed strategic dangers, of this no-win occupation. The President and his apologists like to say that, if Kerry had been in charge, Saddam would still be in power in Iraq. Perhaps so -- given what we now know for certain to have been the lack of any compelling threat. But with the U.S. and its allies the masters of Iraqi skies, and with inspectors crawling over every strategically-interesting inch of the country, and with armaments even an eyelash more capable than the strict limits allowed by the U.N. resolution being ground into scrap, this "power" would have been but a paltry thing, and Hussein's days, like Milosevic's after Kosovo, would in all likelihood have been numbered -- not by us, but by his own people. And all this, most likely, would have been accomplished without a single U.S. or allied casualty, and at a fraction of the cost of the present occupation.

So it is immensely cheering to see this obvious (but, to most of the Washington press corps, still somehow elusive) point about the coherence, consistency, and accuracy of Kerry's position on Iraq not only taken up with customary vigor by the indispensible Bob Somerby, but then echoed by the likes of Kevin Drum and -- of all people! -- Slate's William Saletan, and then further amplified by Josh Marshall. Thanks to the complacency of the Washington press corps, the Bush campaign has so far largely gotten away with the monstrous chutzpah of blaming John Kerry for taking George Bush at his word. But if this little wave of reasonableness and accurate historical recall can somehow be kept going, the GOP sharpies may have a tougher time scoring with this particular Three Card Monty variation when they hit the stage at Madison Square Garden.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Defending John Kerry, Part III

The realist cannot be persuaded that we can bring about that transformation [of the contemporary world] by confronting a political reality that has its own laws with an abstract ideal that refuses to take those laws into account.

-- Hans J. Morgenthau

I deplore doctrines.

-- George F. Kennan

It is with considerable relief that I turn from truly jejune criticisms of John Kerry to merely wrongheaded ones. Or rather re-turn, since I am here picking up a thread from two earlier posts. You might remember that I previously identified the two major substantive lines of current Republican attack on Kerry:

1. That Kerry's post-Vietnam record is undistinguished and stereotypically "liberal."

2. That Kerry's foreign policy strategy is insufficiently "offensive" compared to Bush's.

I dealt with the first line of attack, which is much the least convincing, here, and I made a start on the second one here. In that latter post, I showed that Bush's supposed "offensive" strategy in the "war on terror" has consisted mainly of starting a war with the wrong country (Iraq) at the wrong time (with Afghanistan unsecured and inspections working) in the wrong way (without the coalition, force levels, or post-war plan necessary to secure the peace). This covers the first major flaw in the "offensive strategy" argument, namely, that an offensive strategy is at best pointless when not directed at one's true enemies. Or, to put it another way, an offensive strategy that makes new enemies, rather than combatting existing ones, is counter-productive.

The other major flaw in the "offensive strategy" argument is that it seriously mistakes the nature of power in international affairs. Specifically, it confounds power with violence. The theoretical heart of my counter-argument can be found in Hannah Arendt's beautiful little essay called On Violence. Although her focus in that work was not exclusively on foreign affairs, I believe that she admirably captured in it the view of power implicit in the great foreign policy tradition represented by figures such as Geogre F. Kennan and Hans J. Morgenthau (the latter a friend of Arendt's and a source of inspiration to her in the Vietnam years). What is that view of power and what bearing does it have on the notion of a Bush "offensive" strategy?

Now in order to answer this, I am going to have to venture a little into questions of political theory. But I am not going to try to say anything new at all. I want to cover really just the A B C's of this question of the nature of power, and of the relation between power and violence. I am going to try to be uncontroversial to the point of obviousness, of triviality. My hope is just to set out some basic terms and get them clear, and then to turn back to the question of foreign affairs and Mr. Bush's so-called offensive strategy.

So, to briefly recapitulate what Arendt has to say on this topic: Power and violence are not the same. This can be seen if we think of the extreme cases of each. The extreme case of power is all against one. The natural strength of even the strongest man, can easily be overpowered by individually much weaker opponents, provided they are unified in their opposition to him, and that their numbers are sufficient. Joint action combines the strength of each individual in the group to create a power much stronger than any one individual could hope to contend with. The extreme case of violence, or force, on the other hand, is one against all. One man with an automatic weapon can control a roomfull of opponents, no matter how unified they may be, provided he has enough ammunition, while they remain unable to arm themselves. In this case, the instruments of violence multiply the lone individual's strength, giving it a preponderance over the much greater potential power of the many.

So to summarize: Violence in politics (what we commonly call force) is the multiplication of natural strength through the use of instruments, while power, in the political sense, results from the combination of the separate strength of many in the form of joint action.

It follows that violence, if it is sufficienty ruthless and effective, can always destroy power, by preventing the unity of action power requires. When Stalin asked "How many divisions has the Pope?" he was right at least in this, that the U.S.S.R. had nothing to fear from the Vatican in the way of that destructive capability that can wipe away even the most powerful regime, by forcing its adherents to cease defending it. However, it also follows that violence can never create power, since unity of action implies freedom, and cannot be compelled the way mere obedience can. So violence is confined to preventing competing powers from rising, but cannot replenish the source of power on which it, too, ultimately depends. When the Pope visited Poland in a vastly weakened Warsaw Pact, the Vatican still had no divisions, but that visit helped spark the creation of a new, popular power which, in time, undermined the ability of the regime to deploy the means of violence against its own people. The Vatican could not send tanks to defeat an army, but it did eventually help to create a source of power that overpowered a Polish state whose own sources of power had long since dried up.

For, in the real world of states, power and the means of violence are of course always found together, in admixtures of various kinds. Every state is by definition a "monopoly on the legitimate means of violence" (Weber). But, by the same token, every such monopoly -- even in a dictatorship -- can only be established and maintained by a core of power -- of unified action. If the police will not arrest the protestors and break up the demonstrations, if the army will not shoot them, then the regime is helpless, be it ever so well armed. And this of course is exactly what happens in a revolutionary situation: power is lying in the street, and control of the situation generally falls to the first group or party that is willing and able to pick it up -- that has, as we still say, a big enough "power base."

Of course, once "in power" a successor regime can (and often does) become dictatorial in its turn, using force to suppress competing sources of power in society -- and not just competing means of violence. This strategy allows such a regime to get away with rulling from a narrower power base than would be required for a regime that monopolized the legal means of violence without trying to use that monopoly to monopolize power as well. However, such a strategy also makes a regime exceptionally brittle -- subject to sudden collapse -- for a narrow power base can never be as stable as a wide one. These are some of the important differences between "free" and "unfree" governments.

Thus Arendt. Now what are the implications of all this for the question of Mr. Bush's famous "offensive strategy?"

1. First, the very notion that there is a sharp distinction between offensive and defensive strategies pretty clearly reflects a view of power on the model of violence. Where power is concerned, the distinction between offense and defense can never be that bright. Since power consists only in joint action, it must always be concerned with sustaining the capacity for such action. Every successful offensive use of power also entails defense of the power-generating capacity. At the same time, since power's ability to combine the strength of individuals has no natural limit except that of another, countervailing power, a system of powers is inherently dynamic. So the defense of power is often best accomplished by the expansion of that same power-generating capacity, by expanding the numbers of people who can contribute to it -- and simultaneously reducing the numbers that might contribute to a rival power.

This was the logic that drove us to create one international institution and program after another after World War II -- the World Bank and the IMF, the UN, the Marshall Plan, NATO, ASEAN, the Alliance for Progress, the Fullbright Scholarships, the Peace Corps, the Helsinki Accords, and on and on. There used to be a great deal of debate among diplomatic historians about whether all this institution building and program creating was offensive or defensive, with respect to the Soviet Union in particular. But the obvious answer is that it was both.

2. Second, in being wed to a view of power on the model of violence, this "offensive strategy" in fact has a great deal of trouble rising to, and remaining on, the specifically strategic level of analysis. When thinking of the use of force, it is a natural temptation to fall into questions of tactics -- the battlefield distinction between offense and defense has a sharpness that is missing when one turns to matters of overall strategy. The point of strategic thinking, is neither to be "on the offensive" nor "on the defensive" as such, but rather to achieve certain political goals, by whatever means are most appropriate at a given time and phase of effort. In the words and actions of Donald Rumsfeld and the other civilian appointees at the Pentagon, in particular, one can easily discern a virtual obsession with the details of military tactics, coupled with an astonishing disregard for the strategic clarity, usefulness, and plausibility of the overall political goals of a given operation, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. This was, in substance, the chief concern expressed at the prospect of an Iraq war by ex-Generals like Clark, Zinni, Shalikashvili and Hoare.

It may seem odd, incidentally, that it was the general officers who were thinking strategically, while the civilians in the Pentagon were mired in short-term tactical considerations, but it shouldn't be -- the Joint Forces Commands with their Commanders in Chief (CINCs) have produced a group of generals whose responsibilities for regional stability were such that they had no choice but deal with power as it exists in the real world, not in the battlefield fantasies of Neoconservative intellectuals.

3. Third, the treatment of power in the mode of violence leads to an "offensive" strategy that is very good at destroying things, but very bad at creating them. Since power is expected to look like force, any of the resources and manifestations of power that do not look that way are ignored, or at best treated as secondary considerations. But it is just these resources and manifestations of power -- those that least resemble force -- that are necessary to build, for example, a new state to replace a vanished one, or strong multilateral institutions to support and legitimize such a state, or strong regional alliances to both secure and tame it. Without these achievements of power, an "offense" can hold no ground, secure no peace, achieve no lasting goals.

The crucial work of "reconstruction" (a modest name for a very big thing) has lagged miserably in both Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps because those who think of power and violence as synonymous simply lack the concepts required even to see that such work desperately needs doing. By the same token, there has been a wild -- an almost marxian -- overestimation of the "creative" power of violence. Very senior members of the administration apparently allowed themselves to be convinced -- like overly impressionable graduate students besotted with the latest theoretical fashions from Paris -- that all that would be required to stand up a flourishing liberal democracy in Iraq would be the removal of Saddam Hussein. Apparently they believed, with Chairman Mao, that the power required to run Iraq in Hussein's absence would "grow from the barrel of a gun." The resulting power vacuum -- which shows no sign of abating and indeed may be getting worse -- mocks the astonishing naivete that could still have believed such utopian nonsense, in the wake of the 20th century.

4. Fourth, ultimately an "offensive strategy" that thinks only in terms of power-as-violence cannot remain such. Tactical offensives can be multiplied only until the neglected power base -- the universe of supporters and the intensity of their support -- is exhausted, at which point a retrenchment must occur, either willingly or not. This is the famous "imperial overstretch." But that image is itself too benign, for it fails to capture the depth of the paradox: The imperial state, even in its rising or tactically-offensive phase, is always, strategically speaking, on the defensive. This is because, once it has begun treating all power as a species of force, such a state lacks the means to rejuvenate and multiply its own power, from a widening and deepening pool of genuine allies and supporters. As a result, such a state can preserve its power only negatively -- by using violence to prevent the rise of potentially competing powers.

[Note added later: This was the path Athens went down after the Delian League morphed into the Athenian Empire. It ends, as Anglachell reminded me the other day, at Syracuse.]

And this, in fact, seems to be the policy of the present administration: Not just to ensure, as a means to other ends, that the U.S. is the most powerful single nation, but to ensure, as an end in itself, that no power or combination of powers could, even potentially, rise up to challenge us. And in this strange sense, the Iraq war was indeed "defensive." Because when you are unable and/or unwilling to do the things required to enhance and expand your own power base, then your only choice becomes that of sending your legions out to the distant corners of the empire, to break up the "rogue" powers that are ever threatening to rise on your borders.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Spitting in the Wind, Part XXXVII (Now With More Irony!)

I am posting a response (of sorts) to the attacks on John Kerry's combat record in Vietnam. Now this is probably a stupid and self-defeating thing to do. It is akin to responding to the question "So when did you stop beating your wife?" with anything besides a punch in the nose. In a saner political environment -- one not poisoned by a decade of systematic right-wing character assassination, endlessly echoed through a compliant mainstream "news" media -- it would never be necessary to do such a thing.

But alas! We live in wacked-out times, and the Swiftvets For Total Gibberish have been so effective at getting their message treated as though it were serious by aforesaid lame-ass mainstream media, that I found myself having to write up substantially the following, to counter the absurd charges being recycled by my pro-Bush friends. So, since it cost me a couple of hours of research and writing time, I thought I might as well be shot for a sheep as a lamb, and decided to post a (somewhat souped up) version of my response here, for all the good it will do (which, I'm quite sure, couldn't be measured with a nanometer). So off we go:

Now, we all doubtlessly know in our bones that John Kerry is an arrogant, aloof, morally-centerless, lying, homo-loving, frenchified, latte-sipping terrorism-appeasing commie pinko -- whereas the Swiftvets Who Weren't On Kerry's Boat are, to a man, true-blue American patriots with non-partisan hearts of gold that would never harbor a lie, so help them God. Still, a candid critic will admit that certain minor details of the pubic record are somewhat troubling, viz.:

From the "spot" ("after action") reports for 1969:

20 FEB 69, 1400H, WQ280747, SONG DAM DOI.


Both spot reports can be found in this PDF.

Entire Spot reports for these two months found in the following PDFs: February and March

Now, this seems to suggest that Kerry was, you know, wounded in battle and all, in February and March of 1969. But fear not, dear readers! For this only accounts for TWO of the THREE supposed wounding type incidents and (FOR SOME "MYSTERIOUS" REASON) there isn't anything posted on the Kerry campaign website for 1968 -- which time period (MOST "CONVENIENTLY," N'EST-CE PAS, DEAR READERS?) covers Kerry's first purple heart (in December of that year), and which can obviously only mean ONE THING -- namely, that John Kerry is an arrogant, aloof, morally-centerless, lying, homo-loving, frenchified, latte-sipping terrorism-appeasing commie pinko . It would of course be unreasonable even to entertain any other, more "innocent" (HAH!) explanation. Otherwise, after all, John Kerry would simply make his medical records public, which would instantly resolve the issue of his first wound.

But, then again, although Kerry (like Bush) hasn't made his medical records public, he has (again like Bush) let the press examine his medical records, on the basis of which the (to be sure, LIBERAL COMMIE PINKO) Washington Post writes as follows, quoting said records directly:

Kerry was hit by shrapnel three times during his service on a PCF (patrol craft fast), known as a "swift boat," in late 1968 and early 1969. On Dec. 2, 1968, he was grazed on his left arm above the elbow. "Shrapnel removed and appl bacitracin dressing. Ret To Duty," the person who treated him wrote.

Well, well, what a wimp! He wants a medal for a little shrapnel in his arm?! Why, Duke Wayne would've taken it out with his teeth and then marched on to reconquer Batan! Hell, it's so tiny, it might even have been self-inflicted! Piece of his own grenade he mishandled, or backfire from one of those ever-jamming M-16s. After all, how much can a "Massachusetts Liberal" know about shooting guns? Yes, yes, he's an avid hunter and all, but you know what I mean -- at people!

Yes, well, possibly. But, unfortunately, the blasted regulations have this to say about the purple heart citation:

(b) Individuals wounded or killed as a result of "friendly fire" in the "heat of battle" will be awarded the Purple Heart as long as the "friendly" projectile or agent was released with the full intent of inflicting damage or destroying enemy troops or equipment.

And, stranger still, the list of injuries that meet the criteria don't seem to say anything at all about the severity of the wound:

(a) Injury caused by enemy bullet, shrapnel, or other projectile created by enemy action.
(b) Injury caused by enemy placed mine or trap.
(c) Injury caused by enemy released chemical, biological or nuclear agent.
(d) Injury caused by vehicle or aircraft accident resulting from enemy fire.
(e) Concussion injuries caused as a result of enemy generated explosions.

Well, whatever. But anyway, to make matters worse -- from the point of view of all red-blooded, latte-eschewing patriots, that is -- there is the annoying fact that the purple heart is explicitly intended pretty much to be given to the wounded soldier as a matter of right, in recognition of their having been wounded in combat, instead of (as with other medals) bestowed upon the soldier because of someone else's judgment of their actions. So asking for it after being wounded is pretty much what you're supposed to do, and the only way to get it:

b. While clearly an individual decoration, the Purple Heart differs from all other decorations in that an individual is not "recommended" for the decoration; rather he or she is entitled to it upon meeting specific criteria.

But, you know, there's still no after-action report for this one, so, obviously, Kerry must have injured himself while fishing with hand grenades or something, and so is clearly still an arrogant, aloof, morally-centerless, lying, homo-loving, frenchified, latte-sipping terrorism-appeasing commie pinko.

Of course, a reasonable person might find such a tale difficult to square with the facts found in Kerry's official naval record, which he rather annoyingly released to the public a long time ago.

I won't bore you with the oh-so-heroic Bronze and Silver Star citations (WHAT A SHOWOFF!), which document what he did to earn each medal, and which you can read for yourself. But perhaps even more troubling -- from the true-blue, anti-French strictly hetero perspective, I mean -- is the collection of Kerry's fitness reports, which happen to include the following report (on page 22 of the 29 page PDF):

In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action LTJG Kerry was unsurpassed. He constantly reviewed tactics and lessons learned in river operations and applied his experience at every opportunity. On one occasion while in tactical command of a three boat operation his units were taken under fire from ambush. LTJG Kerry rapidly assessed the situation and ordered his units to turn directly into the ambush. This decision resulted in routing the attackers with serveral enemy KIA.

And then more of the same (SHEESH! THE GUY IS INSUFFERABLE!) on page 24 of the same document:

LTJG KERRY was assigned to this division for only a short time but during that time exhibited all of the traits desired of an officer in a combat environment. He frequently exhibited a high sense of imagination and judgment in planning operations against the enemy in the Mekong Delta. Involved in serveral enemy initiated fire fights, including an ambush during the Christmas truce, he effectively suppressed enemy fire and is unofficially credited with 20 enemy killed in action. Though relatively new to the PCF he is thoroughly knowledgeable of all aspects of his boat and PCF operations. He was instrumental in planning of highly successful Sea Lords Operations.

As you can see in the PDFs, these fitness reports are signed by one G. M. Elliott, Kerry's then-commanding officer, who of course more recently came to his senses and signed the affidavit endorsing the anti-Kerry swiftvets' charges -- in particular the charge that he did not deserve his Silver Star -- and then, for some reason (ANOTHER MYSTERY, DEAR READERS, YET ANOTHER!) , promptly changed his mind again, (AND WHAT WOULD MAKE A MAN DO THAT, EH? ANSWER ME THAT?!) claiming (GET THIS!) that he had made "a terrible mistake" in signing the affidavit.

So, what we see here is that one of the most prominent Kerry accusers changed his position on Kerry's service record more or less 180 degrees, presumably bringing his current views back in line with these oh-so-glowing fitness reports on Kerry that he had signed off on, back in 1969, when he was Kerry's commanding officer. And we all know what that must mean, don't we dear readers: Elliott has obviously been SUBORNED BY THE FRANCO-PHILIC COMMIE CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE!!!


So, as you can see, I have now reviewed the available record and, as I'm sure you will agree, conclusively demonstrated that John Kerry is an arrogant, aloof, morally-centerless, lying, homo-loving, frenchified, latte-sipping terrorism-appeasing commie pinko. So that's case closed, then.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Reality Bites (Back)

Depite John Kerry's relatively healthy position in current head-to-head and issue polling, there are a number of ways that George W. Bush could still win this election. The Bush campaign could come up with a highly effective smear that is not paried immeditately and decisively enough -- the way this one was. (Kudos to John McCain, incidentally, for giving his faltering party a valuable reminder of what honorable political combat looks like.) Or Kerry could make a major enforced error -- such as an embarrassing gaffe in the debates. Or the Pakistanis could finally get Osama Bin Laden in the weeks just before the election. Enough such bad breaks for Kerry and Bush could still pull it out.

But if Bush does lose, it won't be because he caught any bad breaks. It will be because, on two decisive issues, he bet that reality could be safely ignored -- and lost.

1. On Jobs. As Brad De Long has been saying, Bush made a bet that he could pass a series of long-term, upper-income tax cuts -- when what the macroeconomy really needed was short-term, consumer-focused stimulus -- and that he would get away with it, because job creation would recover on its own by the time of the campaign. As the latest employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show, he has already lost that bet.

2. On Iraq. Here Bush bet that he could (for reasons that remain murky, at least to me) use the spirit of national unity occasioned by 9/11 to justify taking out Saddam Hussein's regime even though:
  • Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11

  • Iraq had absolutely no collaborative relationship with Al Qaeda

  • Iraq was likely to have had only vestigial WMD capability (and it turns out had none)

  • U.N. weapons inspections backed by the threat of force were working admirably

  • In light of the latter, going in when we did meant going in largely alone

  • The mission against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was bound to suffer

  • The Iraqi exiles' assurances of easy success were massively self-serving

  • The State Department and CIA had grave doubts about the latter group's trustworthiness

  • Military experts warned that post-war security would be enormously costly and uncertain

Here again, it is already clear that Bush has lost his bet. From Mosul in the north to Najaf and points south, the situation is as unstable today as it has ever been. A least-bad outcome may or may not still be possible in Iraq, but the dream of toppling Hussein on the cheap, and winning universal acclaim for having done so, such that questions about the rationale for the war would be moot, died a long time ago.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Defending John Kerry, Part II: The Best Defense

You have to hand it to the GOP choirmasters -- when they hand out the sheet music, everyone sings their part as written. The tune of the moment is Variations on a Theme by Lombardi, and everyone is in harmony, from the lead soloist in White House to the Fox News backup singers. It goes like this: George Bush has an offensive strategy in the "war on terror" while John Kerry's is merely defensive. And we all know who wins that Superbowl.

In the rich annals of boneheaded foreign policy arguments hauled out for the purposes of inducing mass stupefaction during presidential elections, this one ranks right up there with Who Lost China, the Missile Gap, the Secret Plan to End the War, and the Window of Vulnerability. Indeed, in a way it tops them all, because those were ploys by challengers to make sitting administrations look weak or indecisive. They had the advantage of standing for an as-yet-unknown alternative to a depressing status quo. Voters could read their hopes into the challenger's argument -- to agree with it was first and foremost to agree that things needed to get better.

Bush's version -- the Offensiveness Gap -- is being deployed by those already in power, to defend a policy that has already shown itself to be full of disappointments. In that context, it's as if they were saying not, "the current strategy sucks but we can fix it," but rather, "our strategy sucks, but the other guy's will suck even harder, trust us." It's a lot easier to believe in magical solutions before you've watched the magician saw the woman in half for real.

Apart from timing, why is this argument so lame? As I said last time, it gets two big things very wrong:

1. Who our enemies are in this war; and

2. The nature of power in international affairs

The first point here is the easiest to understand and explain, so I'll start there and save the heavy lifting for another day.

Begin with a simple premise: An offensive strategy is useful in proportion to the degree to which it actually targets an enemy who would otherwise be attacking you. Or, as coach Lombardi might have put it, a good offense requires moving the ball down the field in the right direction.

If Iraq had collaborated in any of the Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S., if it had given haven or funding or any form of active support to Al Qaeda, if it had (like Afghanistan) come depend on the reciprocal support of Al Qaeda to prop up the regime, if it had possessed any WMD that it might conceivably have given to Al Qaeda, or if it had evinced any willingness to share WMD with Al Qaeda should it manage to get any -- if any of these things had been true, then it would have been a heck of lot easier to take seriously the invasion and occupation of Iraq as an offensive battle in the war on Al Qaeda terrorism.

Lacking all of this, we're forced to fall back on a pretty unflattering interpretation of the Iraq war as an "offensive" component of the war on terrorism:

In this story, Iraq was a high-risk, high-reward long-shot -- an effort to run the table of Middle East geopolitics. This is the Perl-Wolfowitz story. The bet was that everything would go perfectly -- no collapse of Iraqi state and society, no insurmountable local resistance to a hand-picked government of exiles, no explosion of long-supressed ethnic and religious rivalries. As a result, we would quickly achieve, for practically no cost, a kind of anti-terror trifecta: major new regional military bases to use with no strings attached, a strongly pro-Israel, pro-U.S. regime in the heart of the Arab Middle East, and huge oil reserves that wouldn't be subject to manipulation by, and used to fund, Wahabist extremism. In other words, Iraq would become the anti-Saudi Arabia -- same dominant regional role, but without the House of Saud's compromising reliance on Sunni Fundamentalism for legitimation.

About this "offensive" one can say: It was indirect as hell but, if it had all worked as planned, there is no doubt that it would have altered the strategic balance sharply against all the region's terrorist groups and their sympathizers. The problem is that we already know how this story turns out. If this is the kind of offensive that Iraq was supposed to be, then clearly the risk was way too high, the possibility of success way too slender. Strategically speaking, the costs are already off the scale, we're a long way from done, and we'll be lucky now to get out while leaving behind something no worse than what was there before -- never mind all the benefits we were supposed to achieve. It was the Mother of All Bank Shots. Unsurprisingly, we scratched.

My gut feeling is that this hairbrained idea of fighting the war on terrorism by forcibly redrawing the geostrategic map of the Middle East was probably always window dressing -- something the Neo-Con intellectuals cooked up in the Pentagon and it sounded good in a speech ("a forward strategy of freedom") so the White House used it. More than likely, the real "offensive" in Iraq was direct, not indirect. The point was just what it looked like -- to get Saddam, come hell or high water. That the old devil didn't have jack squat to do with 9-11 or Al-Qaeda was something that could be fudged. Having fudged it, there was no need to balance the costs and benefits of "regime change" in Iraq as a policy option in its own right. Justified as an explicit part of the war on terrorism, going after Saddam could be made to seem imperative, not optional.

I don't really have a good theory about why Bush wanted to use the war on terrorism as an excuse to go after Saddam -- family grudge match, Oedipus complex, political calculation, imperial vanity, ethno-religious vengence -- who knows? Maybe my gut instict is wrong and Bush really did believe the Neo-Con fantasy about a liberal-democratic Iraq emerging full-blown from Ahmad Chalabi's forehead. Or maybe he actually believed the unhinged conspiracy theories of Laurie Mylroie (as Dick Chenney seems to do to this day), according to which Saddam -- paranoid and vainglorious secular dictator by day -- was secretly the greatest Islamic fundamentalist terrorist mastermind the world has ever known!

But it hardly matters, because it doesn't change anything, one way or another: You don't get points in foreign policy for good intentions, when the consequences of your decisions are a strategic disaster. And you don't get points for being "on the offensive" when you march half your army into an arbitrarily-chosen country and make yourself its very temporary and uncertain master, for no apparent reason, that would begin to redeem the costs entailed in doing so. I've said it before, and since it fits the case so well I'll say it again: If Iraq is a battle in the war on terrorism, then it is that war's Gallipolli -- a reckless, enormously costly gambit in a highly marginal theater, undertaken for aims that were muddleheaded at best, delusional at worst, and carried out in a fashion virtually guaranteed to produce stalemate rather than success.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Defending John Kerry, Part One

Judging from the headlines -- and also from what my pro-Bush friends are telling me -- the substantive case against John Kerry (as distinguished from the case built on character assassination, which I'm also hearing plenty of) seems to come down to the following two claims:

1. John Kerry's record in public life, beyond his military service, is both undistinguished and sterotypically liberal.

2. John Kerry's strategy in the "war on terrorism" will be defensive rather than offensive, and thus inferior to that of Geogre Bush.

Both claims are wrong, but in different ways. The first claim is wrong on the facts -- Kerry's record in public life is both more accomplished and less predictably ideological than this claim would have it. The second claim is wrong in a more fundamental way. While there is a narrow sense in which it can be made to track the facts, the claim is built on a fundamentally wrongheaded interpretation of those facts -- specifically, one based on a terribly naive view of two things: who our most dangerous enemies are, and how power works in international affairs. Since claim number one is the low-handing fruit, I'll start with that one, and return to the foreign policy argument another day.

Kerry's post-Vietnam record of accomplishment begins before he reached the Senate. He was, from 1976 to 1979, the de facto head of the District Attorney's office of the largest county in Massachusetts. In that capacity, he achieved the complete modernization of that office, expanding it nearly threefold and developing early versions of the sort of efficient, specialized task forces (on rape, organized crime, repeat offenders, white collar crime) that have since become commonplace in prosecutors' offices around the country. Subsequently, while Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 1983, he co-chaired the National Association of Governors' task force on acid rain and was the driving force behind its landmark "call to action" report -- at the time the most comprehensive assessment of the problem ever undertaken by elected officials.

All well and good, you say, but what of his three going on four terms in the United States Senate? What did he accomplish there? The first thing to say is that, while it is true that Kerry's name is not associated with any signal legislative achievement, such noteriety is actually very rare. Relatively few members of Congress wind up having their names used as shorthand to denote major changes in the political landscape -- McCain-Feingold , Graham-Rudman-Hollings, Kemp-Roth. And being junior senator to one of the true legislative lions of the chamber -- Teddy Kennedy -- has no doubt contributed to the relative shortage of major bill sponsorships in Kerry's record.

But none of this means that Kerry's Senate record is without accomplishment. On the contrary, Kerry can point to three major achievements that any senator could -- or, at least, should -- be proud to claim as his or her own:

* It was Kerry -- then a freshly-minted first-term senator -- who in 1987 launched the initial investigation into the involvement of members of Reagan's National Security Council staff in channeling foreign funds, including drug money, to the Nicaraguan Contras. Although this would prove to be the tip of the Iran-Contra iceberg -- our gravest constitutional scandal since Watergate -- at the time the press was paying no attention to the story, and the Justice Department and NSC were in full coverup mode.

* As chair of a sub-committee on terrorism and narcotics, Kerry led the investigation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The committee's 1992 report documented BCCI's role as a major money launderer for the international drug trade and financial clearing house for terrorists and arms traffickers -- including Pakistan's nuclear program. Kerry pursued the trail of BCCI's corrupting influence on U.S. institutions relentlessly -- even when it led straight to Democratic party bigwig Clark Clifford.

* In the early nineties, Kerry took on the POW/MIA issue -- long considered too hot to handle politically. Working closely with John McCain, Kerry chaired the committee that ultimately resolved the outstanding cases, thereby laying the groundwork for normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. By all accounts, it was Kerry's leadership that made the unanimous report of the Demoratic and Republican members possible.

Clearly, Kerry's forte as a legslator is the same as Harry Truman's -- the investigative committee, rather than the draft bill or amendment, has been his tool of choice for combating wrongdoing and affecting positive change. The senatorial accomplishments are there in abundance -- even if he doesn't happen to have any pernicious pieces of protectionism, ill-considered deregulation, unaffordable tax cuts or major pork barrrel projects to call his own.

Alright, Kerry may have used his time well in the senate, but isn't he a dyed-in-the-wool liberal -- a straight up ideologue trying to pander to the far left while passing himself off as a centrist to appeal to swing voters?

Well, his record is certainly not that of what passess for a conservative in Washington, but neither is it without its rather bold violations of partisan orthodoxy. At the top of that list would be his vote for Graham-Rudman-Hollings -- the original deficit reduction legislation, passed in the wake of Reagan's budget-busting tax cuts and defense increases. There was, to say the least, nothing politically popular about a Democratic senator embracing the cause of deficit reduction back in the late '80's. This one vote alone deserves to make his credentials as a deficit hawk unimpeachable -- especially by the spendthrift Bush White House. Kerry has also championed, as late as last year, increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to promote his goal of independence from middle-eastern oil -- this despite the overwhelming political opposition of both the domestic automakers and the United Auto Workers, and despite being an announced candidate for the Presidency at the time -- one headed into a contest in which Michigan and Ohio will be key swing states.

I could go on and on, but what's the point? It's already clear, based on just this quick review of the record, that John Kerry's achievements in elective office eclipse those of George W. Bush many times over. That should hardly be a surprise -- compared to Kerry, Bush remains a new-comer to public life in general, and to the national and international stages, in particular. When he first took office, he was perhaps the least accomplished man to attain to the presidency in over a century -- a figure out of the Gilded Age, when party (and class) loyalty, political-family connections, and being well-financed were all that mattered. That the White House and the GOP find themselves having to fall back on a disparaging claim about Kerry's record of accomplishment, when Bush's own is so shallow and so thin, says all one needs to know about the level of confidence in the Bush camp.

Next time, I'll look at why the offensive/defensive dichotomy is a terrible way to analyze the foreign policy challenge of trans-national terrorism.