Monday, July 30, 2007

Guns Galore

The “headline-grabbing” announcement said the Bush administration was ready to notify Congress that the U.S. would sell Saudi Arabia $20 billion in new weaponry over 10 years.

But as usual, this was only part of the story of what was happening and – in midsummer of 2007 – why it was happening now.

In any other administration, or even this one a few years ago, I would have termed the announcement and its timing an audacious move by the White House. Not now.

Not when the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense are leaving for an old-fashion, arm-twisting, whistle-stop campaign to get regional “allies” in line behind U.S. policy.

Not when, having invaded another country, overturned the regime, “managed” the election of a nominally representative, fully sovereign government (even though the foreign military presence is 75 percent of the original invasion force), the U.S. public learns that the duly elected prime minister reportedly says he has no confidence in the top U.S. general and wants him replaced.

Not when U.S. troops (not to mention the indigenous security forces and civilians) are fighting and dying in a war that should never have been started in an effort to implement an ill-conceived, incomplete “strategy” for “winning.”

No. Today’s announcement is more a desperate bid to draw Arab neighbors of Iraq into Washington’s plan to build regional political support for Iraq and, simultaneously, block any effort by Iran to extend its influence in the Gulf area.

The desperation is also palpable when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Its relationship with Washington has been quite rocky since September 11, 2001.

- The Saudis opposed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, although they did allow non-combat aircraft to fly from Saudi airbases in support of U.S. and British troops during the invasion.

- By the end of August 2003, all U.S. military personnel had left Saudi Arabia for other countries in the Gulf, whereas in 1990 Saudi Arabia was the staging ground for the coalition that drove Saddam’s army from Kuwait.

- In Fiscal Years 2005 and 2006, Congress prohibited any and all assistance to Saudi Arabia in the Foreign Operations appropriation for the State Department, but each year allowed the president to waive the ban upon certifying that the Saudi’s were cooperating in the war on terror – which Bush did.

Many in Congress objected to the waivers, citing Saudi support for Sunni militants fighting in Iraq (there are more Saudis than Syrians fighting U.S. troops), Saudi financial support for the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government elected in January 2006 (support subsequently removed after the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank), and the practice of making payments to families in which someone is killed by Israel troops. And the critics also point to the fact that the Saudis refuse to recognize Israel diplomatically

On the other hand, during the 1990s, nothing whatsoever stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia, especially in the first years after the 1991 Gulf War when the Pentagon was willing to sell almost anything to the Saudis – with the stipulation, demanded by Tel Aviv, that Arab countries would not get equipment that technologically equaled the equipment provided Israel. Based on these orders, the U.S. actually delivered $22.9 billion in weaponry to the Saudis in the period 1997-2004.

This history helps explain why the headlines highlighted the $20 billion for Saudi Arabia rather than the real money which, for nine countries in the region, comes to at least $63 billion over the ten years.
Nearly half of the $63 billion – $30 billion – will go to Israel, again largely because of history.

As a “reward” for Israel and Egypt signing the 1979 peace treaty that followed the 1978 Camp David Accord, President Carter asked Congress for a special $4.8 billion aid package to be split between the two countries, with Israel getting $3 billion and Egypt $1.8 billion. These figures became an annual “entitlement” that lasted into the mid-1990s. Israel requested that its money, which was a combination of economic and military aid, be converted to all military assistance. Israel offered to cap its aid at $2.4 billion annually if at least half could be spent wherever Israel chose (normally, such aid must be spent in the U.S.).

Many in Congress were not pleased with the “no strings” aspect of the Israeli proposal, but they could not resist “recouping” $600 million at a time when the Clinton administration was looking for funds to help Jordan, which signed its own peace accord with Israel in 1994. Moreover, in keeping with the 3-to-2 informal ratio created by the 1979 Camp-David peace accord, An unacknowledged by-product of the cut in total aid to Israel was a $500 million cut in military financing for Egypt’s military. In 1997, Congress capped aid to the Middle East at $5.4 billion, of which $85 million went to the Palestinians, $193 to Jordon, and$12.5 million to Lebanon with when the Israelis pushed for and received three changes: convert all their aid to military, be allowed to spend half the total in countries other than the U.S., and drop their total from $3.0 billion to $2.4 billion.

The “concessions” proposed by the Israelis were finally agreed to by Congress, but the “restrictions” were soon repealed in subsequent Foreign Operations appropriations. Israel is still the only country allowed to spend its foreign military aid – now all of it – wherever it wants. As for the reduction from $3 billion to $2.4 billion in annual direct military aid, that will touch the original $3 billion mark of the post-Camp David accord under a new Bush proposal. The unknown factor here is whether Egypt’s military will also go back to receiving $1.8 billion – its “2” in the Camp avid treaty associated 3-to-2 ratio.

And although by comparison it isn’t much money, the Bush administration has sent at least eight military cargo planes loaded with guns, bullets, rockets, missiles, small arms ammunition, some trucks, night vision goggles, and spare parts to the Lebanese army. Approximate
military aid to Lebanon in 2007 is running at $40 million, about what it was in 2006. The Beirut government is asking Washington to increase that amount to $280 million in 2008 so it can buy more weapons to root out “al-Qaeda” factions that are entrenched in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli in the north and Ein Hilwa in the south. Among other equipment, the Lebanese say that the U.S. will deliver 289 HUMVEEs.

And Iraq? It’s spending $1.5 billion a year on new U.S. equipment, and that’s before it gets into the expensive things like tanks and aircraft.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Guantanamo -- Again

A just-released report from the “Combating Terrorism Center” located at the United States Military Academy at West Point is the Pentagon’s latest counterattack in its struggle to keep the detainee prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba open and functioning.

The West Point report will not change any minds or votes in either house of the Congress. But that never was its raison d’etat. It was always going to be the Pentagon’s pedagogical rebuttal to a February 2006 study by two law professors from Seton Hall University of the “evidence” that had been used by the special “combatant status review tribunals” (CSRT) established by Bush to circumvent existing U.S. statutes and treaties prohibiting torture and any degrading treatment of more than 510 “enemy combatants” whose original “cases” had been heard in 2005.

The bases of the two studies are the now unclassified personnel data files prepared by the military on each detainee. The conclusions of the Seton Hall professors point clearly to a major perversion of justice perpetrated by the continued imprisonment of most inmates. In fact, fewer than 8 percent of those being held had even been formally designated as al-Qaeda adherents. Conversely, from the information in the data folders, 55 percent were or should have been exonerated and released.

The military’s study, which includes a critique of the Seton Hall conclusions (a “favor” reciprocated by Seton Hall at the House hearing), predictably found that the vast majority of the prisoners – 73 per cent – still constituted a definite if indeterminate threat to the citizens and interests of the United States or its coalition partners. Another 22 percent were potential threats, and could not be released.

There undoubtedly are some among the 360 still incarcerated in Guantanamo who, if released, would immediately resume field operations against the U.S. (In fact, the Pentagon says it has identified eight militants who did just that; one is now dead.) But that does not excuse the deliberate denial of fundamental human and legal rights to these men by the Bush administration in what amounts to the wholesale perversion of international law.

Compounding this miscarriage of justice – that is, the creation of the ad hoc CSRTs – is the Pentagon’s equally deliberate intention to attack the Seton Hall study as essentially flawed and swing public attitudes toward the military’s study. This last is not a reckless charge made by an opponent of the Guantanamo prison but a frank, straightforward admission one of the authors of the West Point study.

(This introduces yet another possible violation of law. I have a distinct memory that the Pentagon is enjoined from any activity that would constitute propaganda or lobbying for or against a military program or policy.)

The July 26 hearings are but the latest sparring about the whole question of incarcerating and interrogating detainees caught up in the “global war on terror” that President Bush declared right after September 11, 2001. Testifying before the committee were two “insiders.” Rear Admiral James McGarrah, one of the various commanders of the office at Guantanamo that handled administrative details and data collection for the CSRTs, viewed the process as fair and “vigorous.” Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Abraham, a military intelligence officer in the Army Reserve and a lawyer in civilian life, served six months on active duty during McGarrah’s time in command acquiring and collating “evidence” to be used by the CSRTs. He also was a member of one of the three-person CSRTs that determined whether a detainee was still a threat to the U.S. or could be released. Abraham concluded that the whole process was stacked against the detainees. The so-called rights the detainees had were at best pale reflections of those accorded to U.S. military personnel charged with a crime: no legal counsel, no right to see evidence or to confront accusers; and admissibility of hearsay “evidence.” The “file” on one case that came before his CSRT Abraham called “garbage.”

And in keeping with one of the first rules of systemic process, if you put garbage in, the output will be more garbage.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Getting It Wrong -- Again

What is it in the American psyche that compels U.S. government officials invariably to utter, as if it were preprogrammed in their genes (for obviously they are not thinking of implications), assurances (threats) that all policy “options” are available (or none are excluded) for any person, any country, anywhere on the globe who is associated with “terror”?

For example, on July 11th, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) declared on the floor of the Senate that “The Iranian government, by its actions, has all but declared war on us and our allies in the Middle East. America now has a solemn responsibility to utilize the instruments of our national power to convince Tehran [identified as a state sponsor of terrorism] to change its behavior.” Lieberman’s stance against Iran – he would bomb anything and everything in the country that moved and much that did not – is as blinkered and fanatical as the Qud force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

A week later, the president’s Homeland Security advisor, Frances Fragos Townsend, held a press briefing on the unclassified findings of a Homeland Security National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that, inter alia, described the status of counter-terror actions undertaken by allies in countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan. This naturally opened the way to examining Pakistan’s contribution to the anti-Taliban, anti-al-Qaeda effort in Islamabad’s federally administered tribal areas (FATA) that run along the Afghan-Pakistan border where a renewed al-Qaeda has re-established (according to the U.S.) a safe haven. One exchange was particularly revealing

QUESTION: For the citizen watching this and hearing that in Pakistan there is a safe haven, why should that American citizen not say, “Well, why don’t we go into Pakistan and deal with it that way?”

TOWNSEND: There’s no question, the president’s made perfectly clear, if we had actionable targets anywhere in the world, putting aside whether it was Pakistan or anyplace else, we would pursue the targets.

A few minutes later Townsend seemed to back off a bit – but only a bit – on the prospect of clandestine U.S. unilateral action, saying: “If there are actionable terrorism targets, we work against them with our allies. There are no options off the table in actionable intelligence terrorism targets.”

The following Sunday, July 22nd, Townsend appeared on Fox News as a guest of Chris Wallace. The interview included this exchange:

TOWNSEND: First and foremost, we’re working with our Pakistani allies to deny [al-Qaeda] the safe haven. But let's remember that the federally administrated tribal area is an area of Pakistan that’s never seen the writ of the Pakistani government. It’s never extended that far.
President Musharraf has got over 80,000 Pakistani military troops in the FATA and working with us they’ve sustained hundreds of casualties in this fight. We’re working with them, but the president [Bush] has been clear. Job number one is to protect the American people, and there are no options that are off the table.

WALLACE: Well, you say that no options are off the table. Have we, in fact, acted on those options?

TOWNSEND: Well, for obvious reasons, I’m not going to detail for you things that are classified and how we behave along with our Pakistani allies. I will say to you there are no options off the table.

The official response from Islamabad was measured but steely: “We do not want our efforts to be undermined by any ill-conceived action.” The unofficial response was captured in newspaper editorials that warned it is “in their [the U.S.] own interest and in the interest of Pakistan’s battle with the Taliban” for U.S. troops to “keep themselves out of” Pakistan.

The rule seems to be that there are no rules except what the White House wants to push. On Tuesday, before some 300 Air Force personnel at Charleston, SC, Bush voiced “al-Qaeda” 95 times as if it were an evil spell Osama bin Laden had cast over the U.S., one that only Bush could lift, thereby rescuing democracy both at home and abroad. As for other nations’ sovereignty, the tone running through all the statements and speeches is that it might be respected (tolerated), but not uniformly. That would depend on different criteria such as what the Pentagon thinks it might get away with – e.g., an armed Predator missile launched from Afghanistan against a target in Pakistan.

Now such strikes could also be carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In some Washington circles this would be seen as the re-emergence of the operational capability best suited for removing bin Laden and his closest advisors. And unlike the regular U.S. military, the CIA worked with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate in the 1980 to supply and fund the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation.

Today, Pakistan is a new ballgame and there are new rules that Washington, although it cannot make them, still can affect how the strictures are applied. Both the Pakistanis and the Americans are operating in an unstable environment. Musharraf’s hold on power is shaky, witness the stand-off at the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The loyalty of the ISI must be of concern given their past ties to the Taliban. Most importantly, today Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state.

No matter how the pieces get arranged, outside of the Iraq war, Pakistan is the lynch-pin in the renewed effort to curtail al-Qaeda and Taliban activities. And as the U.S. has botched Iraq so thoroughly, Washington should curb its rhetoric and get down to the job of helping rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s our “job one” in that part of the world.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Crossing Iraq's Rubicon

Last Thursday (July 19th) the United States Institute of Peace hosted a three-person panel whose job was to discuss “Crossing the Rubicon: Next Steps in Iraq.”

The title of the session suggests something of the premise of the organizers. In Roman law, for a general to cross the Rubicon River at the head of his legions was a declaration of war upon the Roman Republic – a treasonable act. The psychological shock on the Roman Senate and citizens as well as on the one violating this stricture had to be severe. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the usually resolute Julius Caesar was undecided virtually up to the point of no “turning back” – that is, his horse had waded into the river bed – when, in 49 BCE, he led his armies across the shallow, 29 kilometer-long boundary marking the divide between Trans-Gaul and Rome proper.

In modern parlance among academicians, policy wonks, and think tank pundits, Caesar was unprepared for unexpected resistance from the Senate and the tribunes of Rome; that is, he had no Plan B.
Amazingly, 2,049 years later, with Rome’s experience fully laid out, it appears that the Bush administration suffers the same shortcoming but in a world that is far more complex than was Caesar’s.

The discussants – Joost Hiltermann from the International Crisis Group, John Packer from Human Rights Internet (Canada), and Larry Korb from the Center for American Progress – clearly were critical of where the U.S. stood and very cautious about future prospects.

Hiltermann sees conditions worsening because the surge (Plan A), despite White House assertions, has demonstrably failed. This, he affirms, was inevitable given the shortage of troops to provide needed military security, over-reliance on the military instrument, and the unexpected early opening and subsequently early closing of the “window of opportunity” to lay the foundation for building a democratic Iraq.

Korb flatly declared that whichever way the administration turned, it would not detect any good alternatives for the future. Both tactically and strategically, the administration had trapped itself into failure in Iraq and therefore would never achieve its vision of stabilizing the greater Middle East. Given this reality, U.S. interests in the area need to scale down and try to salvage two policy elements: stop the violence in Iraq from spreading to other countries, and prevent terrorists from using Iraq as a base for their operations.

Packer saw the choice of the electoral system imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority as a significant problem in that it worked against equitable representation of the Sunni minority by treating the entire country as a single “district.” Yet at the same time there is no leeway for “opting out” because of the sheer complexity of the interactions inherent in modern society. The “solution” drives the society back toward its tribal and ethnic base – which is to say to the level of a divided and therefore a failed state.

All three discussants rejected “soft” partition as a solution, in part because, once started, there is no way to control the number of entities involved. The Kurdish area is a case in point right now, where each of the two Kurdish parties has its own defense and interior ministry.

The U.S. would welcome multinational help in the political, diplomatic, and economic arenas but not the military. But other countries are increasingly reluctant to get involved – at least until Washington admits defeat and demonstrates it will accept other countries as equal partners and not auxiliaries.

There is not enough time left for the U.S. to try to “fix” Iraq. The U.S. has crossed the Rubicon of unilateralism but, unlike Caesar, cannot consumate the challenge to multilateralism. Washington must recross the boundary and withdraw its troops in a way that minimizes military encounters and, at the same time, substitutes economic and political support for the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government, and the larger Middle East.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Iraq: The discussion turns

Iraq: Finding Fool’s Gold

The briefings for the press from civilian and military officials in Baghdad were uniformly upbeat if cautious. The message was: Don’t judge to early.” Give the “surge” a chance (one general wants another year). Then, when (the re-scheduled) judgment is due, scoop all the gold (success) together as some of the iron pyrite (failures) might swell the stash.

And there is plenty of fool's gold that needs to be separated.

For the second time in a week, the Senate failed to impose cloture on debate on an Iraq war-related amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization legislation. With that, Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the measure from consideration until after the August recess.

Reid’s action shifted the Iraq war spotlight back to the House of Representatives where, under different procedural rules, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is ready to move the “ball down the field.”

But as with the Senate, there are obstacles.

One is the psychology of the Vietnam War experience. It is helpful to remember that the three and four star generals and admirals still on active duty are the last of the Vietnam veterans. They were part of the U.S. Army that withdrew from South Vietnam. They lived through the post-Vietnam reduction-in-force, the transition to the all-volunteer, and the “hollow force” of the mid- and late-1970s when there were more bases and units than volunteers to fill the ranks.

Most are on their last assignment, and at the end of their careers, they do not want to be seen or associated with anything that suggests failure.

But they do not have the final word, especially with a Congress that is deeply divided and struggling to pass legislation that will direct the course of U.S. involvement in the Gulf.

The first and most stringent bill that the House is to take up next week, in terms of mandatory timelines, is the “Iraq Redeployment and Reconstruction Act” co-sponsored by three California and one Pennsylvania Democrats – Mike Thomson, Doris Matsui, George Miller and John Murtha, respectively. This legislation would give the president just 30 days from enactment into law to begin drawing U.S. forces out of Iraq.

Another effort expected would extend indefinitely the current ban on spending any appropriated funds for permanent bases in Iraq for U.S. troops or to “exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.” Such a ban is part of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 Defense Appropriations Act (PL 109-289), but is in effect only for that fiscal year. This year’s legislation, H.R.2929, to be introduced next week by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA), would make permanent that ban.

The House may also debate and vote on a new version of Senator Jim Webb’s (VA) proposed amendment, defeated by four votes in the first Senate cloture test last week. The legislation, expected to be offered as a “stand-alone” bill, reportedly will require the Pentagon to observe a minimum “dwell time” at home for war veterans before they could be redeployed into combat zones. The Webb amendment included a provision allowing the president to waive the requirement for “national security reasons, a provision that will either be narrowed or omitted entirely.

The White House, if concerned, is publicly holding to the same position: the president is commander in chief and only he can run the war. But there is a correlation of forces, to use a familiar Cold War phrase, which is becoming irresistible. The number of Republicans in the Senate who have called for a strategy change is steadily growing and will soon provide the needed votes for cloture. Already Senators Snowe, Collins, Hagel, and Smith have voted against the president’s position; Lugar, Voinovich, Warner, and Sununu have warned the White House that political time in Washington – and thus military time in Baghdad – is running out and will soon expire.

A number of senior uniformed military leaders seem to understand this connection better than the political ruling class. There are plans, detailed ones, for withdrawing, but no one will own up to this “on the record” because they do not want their name suddenly appearing on the list of pending retirements.

The sensitivity of this topic in political circles was made clear when the Defense Department’s Under Secretary for Policy, Eric Edelman, in effect accused Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of giving aid and comfort to the enemy by the mere fact of asking if there are withdrawal plans in existence. “Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda,” read the Pentagon official’s response to the Senator’s query.
If the Pentagon uses that tone and tenor when responding to a query from a member of the Seante Armed Services Committee, it is not hard for the military rank and file to image the letter they would get for “talking.”

Since the beginning of July, another “force” seems to be organizing itself and gaining strength: the urban press. This might come as a shock to many in Washington and New York who have been railing against the coverage of the Post and the Times. But a July 15 informal survey of mid-size urban newspapers by the trade publication “Editor and Publisher" concludes that more and more of these media outlets (print, ipod, internet) are calling for the start to the process of withdrawing. Among those cited by the trade publication are the Philadelphia Inquirer; Detroit Free Press; Wichita, Kansas Eagle; Boston Globe; and Sacramento Bee.

At the conclusion of the Paris peace talks, the North Vietnamese readily conceded that U.S. forces won every significant military encounter of the Vietnam War. But they also knew that they had won the more important political challenge, even though two years would pass before they captured Saigon as the last Americans were evacuated from the roof of the embassy. That two years proved insufficient to insulate the military from the overall judgment that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War – after all, wars are fought and won (or lost) by the military.

That is one reason the military commanders will look for every nugget of success that can be mined and inserted into the September 15 report to Congress.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The President, Palestine, and Israel

On July 16, 2007, President Bush announced that the United States would once again -- after a hiatus of 6½ years – reengage in the Israeli-Palestinian search for peace.

Now it is true that Bush, five years ago, endorsed the concept of the “two state solution” which called for a Palestinian state peacefully co-existing beside a Jewish state, with both countries fighting the threat of terrorism in the Middle East. But five years ago, the Bush White House was consumed by the idea that Saddam Hussein had to be ousted as Iraq’s leader, and this “distraction” undercut the type of direct and sustained involvement which is so critical to any advancement in resolving the outstanding disagreements of the two parties.

Make that “of the three parties.” Much to Washington and Tel-Aviv’s surprise if not chagrin, the January 2006 election for the Palestinian parliament returned a majority of Hamas adherents and sympathizers. The vote could have – should have – been easy to predict.

- Corruption in the Fatah party, which had a headlock on the governing Palestinian Authority, was rampant and blatant.

- Fatah was singularly unable to wield the keys of sovereignty as an equal in its dealings with Tel Aviv over “final status” issues such as the right of return, East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, unhindered passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and normal diplomatic relations between Israel and its neighbors.

- Fatah was singularly incapable of providing security for the ordinary Palestinian from common criminals or providing basic services such as potable water, reliable electricity on demand, sewage and trash removal.

Yet through informal organizations, armed militants and unarmed political fronts, these shortfalls were being kept in check while the neediest were being cared for. And since Hamas was in the forefront of these efforts in Gaza and the West Bank, is it any wonder that the Palestinian people rejected those who could not meet their needs and turned instead to the organization that was.

Last month, after heavy pressure from the U.S., Israel, and the European Union, the fragile unity government that had finally emerged in the Occupied Palestinian Territories collapsed. When the smoke of the fighting cleared, Fatah controlled the West Bank, Hamas the Gaza Strip, and the Israelis the initiative over the divided Palestinian factions.

So with a three-sided military confrontation looming, what does President Bush tell the Palestinians on July 16?

“This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians. And now comes a moment of choice. To make this prospect [a Palestinian state] a reality, the Palestinian people must decide that they want a future of decency and hope – not a future of terror and death.”

In January 2006, Palestinians voted for decency and hope – and they were then told that they had voted the wrong way.

Strangely, I had always thought that voting in an election is a political, not a moral, act. Thus as long as an election is fair and free, there cannot be a “wrong” way to vote.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hamlet in Arabia

Another Monday after another weekend graced by attending a performance of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Hamlet. Talk about a national political disaster: as the curtain falls on the final scene of the play, the king (usurper), queen (possibly a knowing accomplice in her first husband’s murder), heir to the throne (hero), and a noble of the realm are dead on stage. Four others die (or are assumed to have died) earlier in the play.

The play is not anywhere near the Bard’s bloodiest. It’s origin is a pre-Christian Danish legend translated by the 16th century French writer François de Belleforest, who also “christianized” the language used and added a moral “lesson.” It has a faint similarity to the June 2001 deaths of ten members of the Nepalese royal family, although in this real world instance the cause of the crown prince’s rampage was his mother’s refusal to let him marry his choice of spouse (in Nepal the uncle did become king, only to be sidelined in 2006).

Following the performance, the Theatre held a post-play discussion that centered on the psychology behind the play brought out two interrelated points that, as in Nepal in 2001, echo and reecho in the real world. Two forces drive the play’s action: remembrance (the Ghost of Hamlet’s father presses the prince to “Remember me”) and revenge. The latter is a function of the first and the product of the reality of unnatural (untimely) death, intense grief, and tremendous frustration and pre-suicidal depression Hamlet feels because he can see no path open to him to honor his father by killing his uncle.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet (1601-1602), a revenge killing for a murder by a blood relative of the victim – officially discouraged by the authorities – was considered “natural” by the common folk and even a sacred duty. But times were changing, and by the next decade, revenge – even for restoring a family’s honor – was being actively discouraged by both state and church.

There was an even greater motive for Hamlet to kill his mother and step-father: religion. One of the more powerful cultural changes still underway when Hamlet was first staged in London stemmed from Martin Luther’s rejection 50 years earlier of the Roman Catholic belief in purgatory. Protestant denominations saw this as an artificial safety valve that, when prayers were said for the souls of the dead, allowed those in purgatory to escape eternal damnation and attain Heaven. While other species will fight within their social structures, the reasons for their warfare are “natural”: food, water access, territorial dominance, choice of mate. But to die in mortal sin – as Hamlet’s father did when he was murdered – means automatic damnation. Similarly, to commit suicide meant automatic damnation.

Hamlet thus was blocked from acting even to end his frustration – because in suicide he would end his memories of his father (and all else) – created by his inability to avenge his father’s death. He had no way to convert his death at his own hand into martyrdom.

How different the interpretation of the meaning of religion of those who, in today’s world, believe their death, if accompanied by the deaths of others, will guarantee their salvation.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Withdrawing from Iraq: who goes and who stays

This week, both the House and the Senate debated and voted on legislation affecting the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. In the Senate, the issue was the length of time soldiers and Marines would have at home between deployments to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the House, Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO) introduced a bill requiring the Secretary of Defense to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within 120 days of the legislation becoming law and complete the drawdown to a “limited presence” by April 1, 2008.

While each of these pieces of legislation directs a substantive change to current tactics and missions of U.S. forces, neither provides an answer to three vital questions:

- Will combat units configured as “quick reaction” forces be positioned in Iraq or be in locations on the periphery or afloat in the Persian Gulf?

- If combat units are kept in Iraq, how many troops will remain and how many “combat support” and training cadre remain in Iraq?

- Where will combat, combat support, and training detachments be located if they are based in Iraq?

In answering these queries, it would be helpful to know how many U.S. military and civilian personnel are in Iraq. With the 29,600 extra troops (21,500 combat and another 8,100 combat support) that constitute the six month-old surge, U.S. military strength in Iraq stands at approximately 160,000 and is expected to stay at that level at least until October 1, 2007, the start of the new fiscal year, or as long as next spring.

Given that the number of troops comprising the “surge” was so widely reported, the administration will be under heavy pressure from its congressional allies to “reduce” the total U.S. military presence in Iraq by at least this number in the initial trache – back to its “pre-surge total of 130,000 – or risk a political and electoral firestorm.

The target date to announce the first reductions is expected to be between September 15- October 1, 2007 – that is, between the date the administration is to send to Congress a promised progress report by General David Petraeus (along with the General to defend his conclusions) and the start of the new fiscal year. Judging from the report released July 12 and defended by President Bush during an hour long press conference, the mid-September report will be carefully parsed by everyone: Democrats, Republicans, the press, and hopefully the public.

Whatever the number and the “schedule” that are eventually announced for pulling troops out of Iraq, the probability is that there will not be a “date certain” that would see all combat troops – let alone all military personnel other than the normal Marine Corps contingent stationed at U.S. embassies – withdrawn from Iraq. Why? Because the Pentagon will continue to try to pursue conflicting if not contradictory mission(s), only with fewer forces left “in-country.”

In general terms, the missions for the residual force will be scaled versions of missions assigned at one time or another plus one new one:

training Iraqi army and police units;

providing “force protection” capabilities for U.S. training personnel and installations;

helping seal Iraq’s borders to prevent arms and anti-U.S. and anti-Iraqi government fighters from entering Iraq;

carrying the fight to al-Qaeda-in Iraq; and a new one of

constituting a “quick reaction” capability for Iraqi government forces as needed.

What is unclear with all the caveats and exceptions and restrictions (all of which the president can waive if he decides to certify that following the parameters of the legislation would be detrimental to national security) is just how reducing troop levels by 30,000 or 50,000 or 80,000 will make any substantive difference in conditions in Iraq – the administration’s proclaimed objective for continuing the occupation of the country. Even with the current troop surge, violence overall has not decreased, only shifted away from Baghdad and al-Anbar province to other parts of Iraq.

Yes, fewer U.S. troops on urban patrols will reduce Iraqi and U.S. fatalities. Removing U.S. troops from vehicular roadblocks and checkpoints will save Iraqi lives (military sources concede 429 Iraqis were killed or wounded by U.S. troops manning checkpoints or running convoy duty in the last 12 months). But these steps will not decrease the level of inter- and even intra-sectarian and ethnic violence that now ravages Iraq.

Another very major consideration is the “other” not-so-secret U.S. army in Iraq: the private contractors working for and being paid by U.S. firms. Even with the surge in military troop strength to 160,000, the private contractors – U.S., Iraqi, and other foreigners – exceed at least by 20,000 those in uniform, according to statistics from the Departments of State (including the U.S. Agency for International Development) and Defense. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, a breakdown of the total shows that, as of February 2007, 21,000 U.S. citizens, 43,000 foreign personnel, and 118,000 Iraqis were employed by companies under U.S. government contracts and thereby financed by U.S. taxpayer dollars. A reduction in military personnel should produce reductions in the total number of contractors needed to feed soldiers and clean and repair bases, but just how many and from which category will not be determined until the Pentagon decides on redeployment.

The contractor picture is further complicated by the presence of a large number of individuals employed by private security firms under contract to the U.S. What this total is seems to depend on who is answering the question. The Pentagon estimate is 6,000 while Central Command’s database lists 10,800. Both totals are well below the private security company association’s figure of 30,000 in Iraq.

Any drawdown of U.S. troop strength probably not affect private security contractors, many of whom protect Iraqis or U.S. executives living in or visiting Iraq in connection with rebuilding its infrastructure and institutions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stopping the Imperial Presidency

In the first week back from its July 4th recess, the Senate finally started floor debate on the 2008 Defense Authorization legislation (H.R. 1585) that tells the Pentagon the categories and programs Congress intends to fund for the fiscal year.

At mid-week, some 40 amendments had been or were expected to be filed with the Senate clerk. Of these, one-third address deployment parameters (e.g., frequency of tours in the war zones), withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, benchmarks, or revoking authority to deploy troops to Iraq.

One amendments that does none of these – and therefore may be overlooked in the inevitable rancid rhetoric of “cut and run,” “stay the course,” “support the troops” – is amendment 2021 co-sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and John Kerry (D-MA). This amendment takes on the president’s extensive use of so-called “signing statements” to subvert the will of the American people, as expressed through their representatives in Washington.

Presidents since James Madison have appended these notices to legislation when they intend to interpret a provision in a statute differently from congressional intent. But, as the non-partisan Government Accountability Office reported in mid-June 2007, Bush has made signing statements a common practice – virtually rewriting legislation to conform to his “interpretation” of Congress’ intent. In 11 of the 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2006, Bush issued signing statements affecting 160 provisions of law. His justification? The provisions were unconstitutional.

The last time I checked the Constitution, the power to decide whether a provision of law is unconstitutional belongs to the courts, not the executive.

In fact, George Bush’s entire term of office has been one unending attempt to make an end-run around Congress’ legislative power as detailed in Article I of the Constitution. The Founding Fathers provided in Article II of the Constitution the president’s remedy when he disagrees with Congress. Under Article II, should the president object to provisions of legislation passed by Congress, he can veto the legislation, thereby challenging Congress to muster a two-thirds super-majority in each House to override the president’s actions.

Underlying the entire thrust of the Bush “imperial” maneuver is the highly questionable theory, often proclaimed by Bush to be inherent in the Constitution, of the “unitary executive.” The White House contends that the Founders regarded the president’s viewpoint on what a law means to be of equal weight to the viewpoint of the Congress as legislation requires the president’s signature to become law. The president announces his interpretation via the presidential signing statement in which he singles out those provisions he will not enforce.

In effect, Bush is claiming a non-existent power: the line-item veto. Congress has never passed a statute giving the president this power, and the courts have rejected a related concept that Richard Nixon tried: sequestering money voted by Congress for programs that Nixon opposed but were included in “must-have” legislation the president signed.

The Specter-Kerry amendment is straightforward: no judicial proceeding in the United States shall take notice of or in any way rely on presidential signing statements as the source of governmental authority in any case that comes before the court.

If included in the final bill sent to the White House, will this have any effect? Recent history is not encouraging.

In 2006, an amendment by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to the Defense Department Emergency Supplemental spending bill barred the use of torture by military interrogators. The amendment stated that only another law passed by Congress could repeal, supersede, or modify the McCain amendment. On signing the bill, Bush blithely ignored the McCain proviso, stating he would interpret the law so as to properly “supervise the unitary executive branch” as commander in chief and “consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power.”

Thus, the need for the Specter-Kerry provision in the 2008 military authorization bill. The Senate can and should reassert the separation of powers set out in the U.S. Constitution and make crystal clear that Congress will not stand for an Imperial Presidency. In that sense, Congress needs to act now to put the president in his place, which is a place just right for any and every president of our democracy, including George Bush.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Cry of Despair from Iraq

“I have come to hate Iraq and the religion that allows such killing. May God damn them all” Khider Walli Ahmed

The past weekend was one of the deadliest in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

Twenty-four police recruits died and another 27 were injured when their bus was hit by a suicide bomber just a short distance west of Baghdad. Another 2 police officers were killed as well as eight other Baghdad civilian residents.
The worst incident was at the village of Amerli which lies between Baghdad to the south and the oil-rich area around the contested city of Kirkuk 50 kilometers to the north. The device used, a truck carrying an estimated 4.5 tons of explosives (judging from the 12 foot crater) – plowed into what has become the terrorist’s favorite target: an open air market where ordinary Iraqis simply did what they have done for centuries.

But that description is incorrect, at least from the viewpoint of those who build the car and truck bombs and those who drive these vehicles into the crowds. In some way, the owners of the shops and stalls, the artisans and the craftsmen, and those buying what is on offer are not “ordinary” – which is to say they are not like “us.”

Most of Iraq’s ethnic groups have at least a token presence in and around Amerli. But most of the dead and injured are ethnic Turkomen, one of Iraq’s minorities that is also caught up in the struggle over oil revenue sharing – assuming that the Iraqi cabinet and parliament (the Council of Representatives) ever vote on the two-part legislation. Most of the northern one-third of Iraq is controlled by the Kurds already. They want to add the area in and Kirkuk, which they claim is their historic capitol.

Yet on the other side of the northern border lies Turkey, a country definitely opposed to the Iraqi Kurds getting Kirkuk. Ankara fears that Iraqi Kurdistan, bolstered by the addition oil reserves they would get from the Kirkuk area, might declare its independence from Baghdad, thus becoming a magnet for Turkeys outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (since 2002 renamed Kongra-Gel). Nor is Turkey shy about making its position public, especially to Baghdad as the PKK is using parts of Iraqi Kurdistan as its base. Turkey reportedly has massed 140,000 troops on its border with Iraq – a mere 352 kilometers.
And what has this to do with Khider Walli Ahmed?

In that one blast last Saturday he lost his entire family –those who had not been killed in sectarian violence last year. With Baghdad unable to provide security for ordinary citizens, with local authorities unable to do any better, what Ahmed expresses is the desperation of a person without hope, without focus, without belief – and therefore open to the blandishments of others with their own agenda and no real empathy for the devastated individual soul.

And we wonder where the truck drivers come from?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Live Earth and the Cassandra Complex

The dilemma is as old – at least – as the golden age of Greek literature and political democracy: how to convey to the majority the reality of an impending disaster that most cannot yet feel or sense without becoming a Cassandra?

Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, could foresee future events. Unfortunately, what she saw – the perfidy of the Greeks in building the wooden horse and sailing away – was not what the Trojans were ready to hear. After all, had they not withstood the 10 years siege of their city by the Greeks?

Cassandra’s failure was due to the limitation of her information. She could foresee impending doom for Troy from the wooden horse the Greeks left on the Plain of Ilium, but exactly what role the horse would have in the city’s fall she could not see.

Today we do not depend on oracles and gods to predict the future but on subject matter experts who, for the most part, are scientists. What have not changed over the centuries since Cassandra are the elements of persuasion and of conveying information convincingly enough that the majority of people accept that:

- a crisis looms just over the horizon;

- it will affect the entire population equally regardless of wealth, position, or status;

- the probability is quite high that its effects may be irreversibly destructive unless the trajectory of events or the point of convergence of trends contributing to the crisis is deflected or shifted;

- bold, decisive, even radical action by those in authority would alter conditions conducive to creating the crisis; and

- relying on luck or muddling through is not going to be sufficient.

This is where the United States and the rest of the world find ourselves the day before LIVE EARTH, the 24 hour, seven continent, non-stop rock and pop music concerts jointly sponsored by Kevin Wall and Al Gore to draw attention to and get information out to people about the looming crisis affecting the earth’s climate. Although there may be some “surprise” announcements today, currently there are eight main concert sites and some 7,000 secondary Live Earth-associated events in 129 countries.

Although there are still some holdouts, most scientists accept that there is a climate crisis and that it is, in large measure, the result of human activity. As such, it is within humanity’s power – and is its obligation – to undertake decisive steps to alter, deflect, or even reverse the trend lines of the last 100 years by changing the way we live and use the earth’s resources.

As climate is a global phenomenon, what is achieved or what is left undone will affect every living thing – plant or animal – on every continent and in all the seas and oceans of the planet. Moreover, the longer we continue on the current path without change, the greater the damage and the longer the period of recovery. For some species, their “crisis horizon” has arrived while for others it has already passed. And we can expect, without significant and immediate change mandated by officials, that the frequency of “crisis horizons” will increase exponentially, not arithmetically.

Live Earth, in itself, will not change anything. It is not raising money for a worthy cause such as fighting AIDS or poverty, like other similar world-wide musical events. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the climate crisis, to be a catalyst in a multi-year campaign to get individuals and groups across the globe to make changes in their personal life-styles and to demand action by governments and corporations to control and reverse global warming.

In the 1960s, events like this that were intended to raise awareness of and generate opposition to the Vietnam War were, by comparison, fragmented and episodic. It was also largely a U.S. phenomenon in its expression of outrage and in its ultimate remedy. Perhaps because the outrage over the human toll has yet to become really widespread, the Bush administration has been able to ignore the marches and rallies and sit-ins by those calling for the end of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that is changing as the casualties accelerate and the American public starts to realize that the continuing presence of U.S. troops is retarding, not accelerating, the rehabilitation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, one of the lessons that Live Earth ought to convey is the link between the war in Iraq and the looming climate crisis – the need for reliable sources of oil to power the U.S. life-style.

Viewed in this light, the Iraq war is a subset of the climate crisis. And although the concerts are to take place on the “triple lucky 7” date of the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year on the 21st century, luck will neither win the Iraq war nor save the planet from what could well be called man’s war on the earth.

Both require real action, real commitment, real outrage.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

July 4th 2007

“When leaders refuse even to explore peaceful alternatives to
war, it becomes all the more necessary for ordinary people to
keep alive the flame of peace, to maintain a commitment to
peace, and to continue the struggle against the ravages that war
inflicts on the body-politic and on the human psyche and spirit.”

Independence Day, July 4th, is once again upon the nation. Bands, parades, concerts, sporting events, recreational theme parks, fishing, sailing,– maybe just doing nothing other than “soaking up the rays” – will all feature in the day’s activities, along with picnics and, after nightfall, the grand fireworks displays..

“Independence” is one of those ideas that functions at both the macro-geopolitical level and at the individual level. At root it deals with the issue of self-rule or self-governance – in a word, self-reliance.

In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson published what has become his signature essay, “Self Reliance.” It was a time of intellectual ferment in the United States, especially in and around Boston where the Transcendentalists, among whom Emerson was a leading light, were concentrated. The previous century had seen the first fruits of Enlightenment thought move from theory to practice in the changes in the political relationship between those who governed and those who consented to be governed. With the independence of the former 13 British colonies secured by revolution, all that was needed to complete the macro transformation was to add symbols and mythic origins to stimulate a narrowly directed, highly emotive nationalism that took on a life and power of its own.

Two American myths were at work at the interface of the geopolitical promise of independence with the actual individual experience of independence. One involved the new waves of immigrants pressing through the Atlantic seaboard states deeper and deeper into the “New World”: the myth of the talented amateur “do-it-yourself” pioneer. The other was manifest destiny: not only are Americans entitled to take the land and develop it for their use, the settlers have an obligation to do so.

Thus a mere 70 years after the birth of the nation, all the threads for success seemed to flow together at the level of the individual. The effects of the new thinking were more and more evident as mid-century loomed. New scientific discoveries by Americans and Europeans rapidly become practical technological devices as the Industrial Revolution took full form. In the arts, especially poetry and literature, new forms and new subjects were explored and developed. Even religion, already “liberated” from its predestinarian Calvinistic straightjacket by the Universalists and the Unitarians, was moving in a more dynamic direction both in belief and in practice (the Second Great Awakening was in full swing). Intuition and insight assumed new prominence.

Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s protégé, championed this spirit of individual independence and self-reliance as a general maxim to be followed. But both men were wary of what one commentator on the period called “comfortable conformity,” the tendency to confine one’s thinking to the common-place happenings of day-to-day life. What makes the loss of intellectual “edge” pernicious is that it happens imperceptibly. Some individuals never even realize what has happened until it is too late and they are left to wonder about what might have been.

This seems to be where George W. Bush and the nation stand this Independence Day. There is still little-to-zero “edge” in official Washington to end the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdraw our troops, help finance reconstruction, and return full sovereignty to the Afghan and Iraqi people. President Bush’s strategy on Afghanistan and Iraq is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s on the old Soviet Union: the United States will outspend the enemy even if the U.S. goes into bankruptcy.

In retrospect, the president’s post-9/11 call to go to the malls and spend money – which he delivered almost as an admonition to the nation to return to “normalcy” – fell flat because it asked for nothing from the individual other than to return to “comfortable conformity.” Bush did nothing to challenge the soul and mind, the self-reliant inner person in every woman and man that is waiting for a worthy cause to which to respond. For only when the spirit rises above the ordinary, inner-directed focus of daily life does it encounter that sense of independence that comes from the knowledge that we do have the power to make a difference simply because we believe in ourselves. As Emerson put it at the beginning of his essay:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true
for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is
genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the
universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the

Monday, July 02, 2007

June Statistics Plus

In Afghanistan, the 2007 fatalities at the end of June – halfway through the year – stand at 100 for the foreign forces, a number evenly split between the U.S. and all other countries. At this pace U.S. fatalities will hit 100 by year’s end, which would be the first time U.S. fatalities hit that milestone. It should be of concern to the White House that annual U.S. fatalities are headed toward the 100 milestone for the third year in a row – the numbers for 2005 and 2006 were 98 and 99, respectively, double what they were in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Overall U.S. fatalities now stand at 407.

Fatalities among the non-U.S. foreign forces in Afghanistan tripled between 2005 (31) and 2006 (93) and, as already noted are also tracking toward 100 in 2007. Britain and Canada account for 122 (62 and 60, respectively) of the 209 coalition deaths since the U.S. assault began on October 8, 2001. The only other countries with double-digit fatalities are Germany and Spain with 21 each. The high death toll reflects not only the wider coverage of coalition troops across Afghanistan but also the return of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters seeking to undermine confidence among the Afghan people of NATO’s determination to support the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Two trends are particularly troublesome. In 2005, the entire country had 17 suicide bomb attacks, usually in vehicles. That figure shot up to 123 in 2006, causing 237 civilian deaths. The UN said another 519 civilians died from improvised explosive devices in 2006. The other trend involves the growing number of Afghan civilians who are killed by NATO and U.S. forces, most often when using air power against suspected Taliban compounds and houses.

In late November 2006, the Joint Co-coordinating Board, composed of Afghan officials and representatives from the coalition forces and the UN, estimate that approximately 1,000 civilians had died to date in 2006 (January-November). Overall, Human Rights Watch in a report issued in June 2007, estimated that of the 6,000 Afghans killed over the last 17 months, 1,500 were civilians.

The increased use of air attacks, both fixed-wing and rotary-wing, is symptomatic of the extreme reluctance of the United States – having invaded Afghanistan seeking Osama bin Laden – and subsequently of the allied forces that participate in the security and rebuilding effort, to commit enough troops to better control the villages and towns along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The increase in cross-border assaults by better trained and armed Taliban suggests that bin Laden is operating from Pakistan in conjunction with the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who may in fact be back inside Afghanistan.

In Iraq, for the third consecutive month, U.S. fatalities exceeded 100 (101 actual), the first time this has occurred. This comes amidst a much touted change among Sunni sheiks in al-Anbar province who have organized their followers to support the government and U.S. troops directly and by encouraging young men to enter the police forces. And while official reported civilian deaths dropped by a third from May’s total of nearly 1,800, Iraqi security force fatalities remain just below the 200 mark in June – essentially no change from May.

During the four-plus years of the war in Iraq, Defense and State Department personnel have scoured history looking for similarities between the Iraq insurgency and earlier insurgencies and occupation duty after war ended. Thus in 2003 the rage seemed to be post-World War II occupations of Germany and Japan. A few looked at the British experience in Malaysia, but more turned to the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940). And of course Vietnam holds some important lessons that remain relevant.

While pundits disagreed about Vietnam, some practitioners looked at what happened in Bosnia after Yugoslavia disintegrated. Now it appears that the French experience in Algeria holds sway, at least what is know publicly from the movie “Battle of Algiers” and Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace.”

Like any comparison involving warfare, no two wars are alike. But one strong caution drawn from the French experience that every U.S. policymaker should contemplate carefully is to note that the French were their own worst enemy. The regular use of torture by the French military and outright murder cost the French government the backing of the people who might otherwise have supported the government.

As happened to the U.S. in Vietnam, the French won all the military engagements but lost on the domestic and international political fronts.