Friday, June 24, 2005

Iraq the new Vietnam?

Eric linked to an interesting blog post last week which drew 15 comparisons between the Iraq war and the Vietnam war. It's an interesting, albeit not entirely original, idea and a well thought out analysis that is worth the read if you haven't already done so. (Yes, I'm a little behind the times, I know.)

Certainly the lack of planning in both cases is the most compelling issue at hand. Perhaps a closer look into how we lost the battle for hearts in minds in Vietnam would provide valuable lessons in the present situation. Perhaps analyzing the pitfalls of fighting a new type of war with outdated tactics in Vietnam would help to alleviate similar problems in the deserts of Mesopotamia in the present day. Or perhaps the U.S. government could learn a valuable lesson about preparing the public for a long road ahead instead of consistently painting a rosy picture of a troubling situation. Indeed the similarities are striking. However, there were some specific and general flaws that I would like to tackle here.

When Vietnam started going badly, desperation led to expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos. Frustration is also leading some to call for military action in Iran and Syria.
Frustration with the direction of the war is not the catalyst for calls for military action in Iran and Syria. There is little doubt that foreign forces are entering through Syria and Iran, are being supplied by Iranians and Syrians (if not those respective governments) and are successfully recruiting in those countries. Furthermore, the idea of taking action against either Assad's government or the Mullahs of Iran has not been seriously (or at least publicly) discussed. Yet. If the U.S. military does eventually engage with the enemy in Syria, Iran or elsewhere in the mid-east, frustration will certainly not be the cause.

As the casualties increased year after year in Vietnam, defenders of the war protested that pulling out would "dishonor the sacrifice" of those troops who had already died. We're now beginning to hear that withdrawing from Iraq too early would mean those who have died would have done so in vain. Both wars have given rise to a perverse logic by which death is only valid and honorable if it's followed by more death.
Baloney. The aim of continuing a war is not to create more death but to achieve victory. In this case that means bringing peace to Iraq, flushing out and eliminating the terrorists in country, establishing a working and effective government and military for and by the people of Iraq while providing a haven for democracy and freedom in an area of the world heretofore devoid of such basic rights. It would be a dishonor to those who died for these causes to disengage before achieving them, especially since our war aims remain within reach. To agree with the sentiments of the author on this point one must be convinced that this war is already lost, a point which I am far from willing to concede.

The tragedy of any war is the toll it takes on innocent civilians. Two remarkably similar pictures capture this perfectly: this one from Vietnam , and this one from Iraq. Apologists for these sorts of tragedies are fond of repeating the mantra that "these things happen during war." Indeed they do. And precisely because they do, war should always be a last resort---because when it's not, the inevitable outrages and tragedies cause the aggressor to lose the moral high ground. We didn't hear much about human rights violations American troops may have committed in Japan or Germany during World War II, did we? All wars are not the same; when in doubt, see Pyrrhus. Or Abu Ghraib.
I am not sure if the author is implying that American Troops did not commit human rights violations in WWII. I would be absolutely shocked if there were not similar--and worse--occurrences during that war compared to what has happened over the past two years. Furthermore, were there not enormous tolls taken on civilians all over the world during WWII? Did the U.S. not lock up thousands of Japanese Americans during that war? Finally, is the author saying the atrocities in Abu Ghraib prove that all wars are not the same? Do prisoner abuse reports determine the righteousness of the larger cause? I'm not sure what he means here, but I am positive he's wrong.

Specific issues aside, my main problem with the author is his apparent contention that if two situations have several parallels (no matter how stretched) then they surely will meet the same fate. Any war historian worth his salt can take two wars at random and create 15 reasons why the two incidents are similar. Obviously many of the reasons on this list are compelling. Methinks this is as much a product of the unique times and situations of the respective wars as the contended mishandling of the operations. The Vietnam war was the first war broadcast into the homes of the American public. No longer did soldiers alone bear the brunt of the awful scenes and memories of battle. In Iraq, the 24-hour a day media is able to capture the images of every bombing, every shooting and every personal tragedy for anyone and everyone to witness around the world. It is impossible for the public to consume these things for an extended time and not have their stomachs turn eventually. "Shock and Awe" was cool; live video of bloodied Iraqi mothers crying over their dead children is not. My critics will argue that such public broadcasts are beneficial in that support for a war without knowledge of what happens in war is blind faith. That is a fair point, but the fact that "all wars are awful" does not translate to "no wars are worth fighting."

The media, military technology and telecommunications all contributed to the speeding up of the Vietnam War (and now the Iraq War) in comparison to earlier conflicts. Major decisions are made and implemented at the drop of a hat, information can travel between allies (and among spies) faster than ever, and there is very little that is not exposed to the public and the enemy concerning the daily operations of the military and state department. As in Vietnam, we are fighting an enemy that cannot withstand a battle against us in traditional warfare. Instead they use their mobility and ruthlessness to their advantage. The face to face fighting of, say, WWII was replaced by jungle ambushes in Vietnam and IEDs in Iraq.

In short, the "Cunning Realist" does a fair job of analyzing the connections between Iraq and Vietnam. His premise, unfortunately, is to compare two recent wars the U.S. has failed in. Not only is this a false premise on its face, but it misses some of the deeper connections between the two. Connections more indicative of the times in which we live than anything else.

UPDATE: Check out this op-ed from Brendan Miniter in the Wall Street Journal's online edition.


Partisan Warfare

I don't typically allow myself to get roped into issues of partisan wrangling, but it's hard not to feel anything but rage toward George W. Bush right now for the White House's endorsement of Karl Rove's latest comments.
Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.

Yes, the motive of liberals is to put our troops in danger. That is nothing short of accusing all liberals of treason. I wouldn't normally count myself as a "liberal" per se, but given that Rove clearly believes that liberals and conservatives are mutually exclusive groups with no overlap and given that I voted for John Kerry, I would count myself among the group whose motives Rove claims exclusive knowledge of. Shameful. It is hard for me to try to be clear-headed or to act in good faith about our country's policies when the people formulating them would say such things.
-- Eric

Rumsfeld: Please, Let Me Resign Already

I had the opportunity to watch the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on C-Span last night, and witnessed an extraordinary exchange between Senator Ted Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld.
TED KENNEDY: Secretary Rumsfeld, as you know, we are in serious trouble in Iraq, and this war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged, and we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire. Our troops are dying, and there really is no end in sight. Our troops deserve better, Mr Secretary, I think the American people deserve better. They deserve competency, and they deserve the facts. In baseball it's three strikes and you're out. What is it for the Secretary of Defence?
LEIGH SALES: Mr Rumsfeld took a deep breath when the Democrat finished.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, that is quite a statement. First, let me say that there isn't a person at this table who agrees with you that we're in a quagmire, and that there's no end in sight. The suggestion by you that people – me or others – are painting a rosy picture is false. I think that the comments you made are certainly yours to make, and I don't agree with them.
TED KENNEDY: Well, my time has just expired, but Mr Secretary, I'm talking about the misjudgements and the mistakes that have been made, the series which I've mentioned. Those are on your watch. Isn't it time for you to resign?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Senator, I have offered my resignation to the President twice, and he's decided that he would prefer that he not accept it. And that's his call.

When a man like Don Rumsfeld, who has a Pentagon-sized ego, responds to a question from a man like Senator Kennedy, who is a symbolic Enemy of all Republicans, about whether he should resign by saying "I have offered my resignation to the President twice," I interpret that to mean, "yeah, I know I have screwed up MASSIVELY. But the President wants me to keep serving, and so I will continue to do so." There are plenty of reasons why the Bush administration may have decided it would not be politically expedient to admit any setbacks in Iraq (most of which I do not agree with), but Rumsfeld's response says it all.
-- Eric

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Blogging is a Force That Gives us Meaning

Unfortunately, the diplomatic situation in Uzbekistan continues to deteriorate. As has been covered here, here, here, here, here and here on Exit145, the May 13 Massacre at Andijon has created a great deal of tension between the Bush administration and the Karimov regime. While Uzbekistan has been a critical ally throughout operations in Afghanistan, it appears that past military support may not be enough to save the friendship. Secretary Rice spoke out publicly on the issue late last week.
"We have arrangements with the Uzbek government and we continue to hope that we can use those arrangements," Rice said, referring to the Karshi-Khanabad base. Rice went on to say that the Bush administration for the last several years has been "urging the Karimov government to do something about the openness of its political system. The answer to the potential threat of extremism in a country is not to close the system down, but rather to open it up to legitimate and more moderate voices in the political system."
In would appear that the Karimov administration is not willing to listen to such calls for domestic policy changes. Recent comments by top Karimov administration suggest that they are profoundly disillusioned with the US-Uzbek strategic alliance, apparently feeling that the United States has not provided the expected level of security. For example, Azizkhojayev, during his June 15 television interview, turned noticeably bitter when discussing US-Uzbek cooperation. "Those who regard themselves as members of the anti-terror coalition sometimes support such people [Islamic militants] in the [current] information war [surrounding the Andijan events]. As a result of this, although the threat posed by international terrorism is common knowledge, the fight against it has not shown any results."
The fluctuating relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan is fascinating. First, the external political situation is a microcosm of the potential contradictions within the Bush doctrine. The Karimov regime is repressive and undemocratic, factors that don't jive with the standard policy of international democratic reform that the administration has championed. On the other hand, elimination of Islamic terrorist threats remains the primary focus of Bush's foreign policy and Uzbekistan has helped to implement that agenda to some degree.

Second, the manner in which the U.S. addresses Karimov's government will show to what degree internal power has shifted between the State Department and the Defense Department. The Pentagon initially attempted to play down the May 13 massacre, or at least play down the effects the massacre would have on our military relationship with Uzbekistan. When the administration did not take much of a stand immediately following the killings, some observers were led to believe that the DoD's views would continue to dictate policy. However, as Rice and Bush have both spoken out against the massacre and it appears that Karimov's regime is not backing down, it looks as though Rice's shop is calling the plays more and more. Perhaps this is a coincidence or perhaps Rumsfeld is losing influence in the White House.

Few people on either side of the debate believe that regime change can happen at this time, largely because of the lack of viable options beyond President Karimov. However, that may be changing. "Sunshine Uzbekistan" seems to be the opposition group of the moment and despite rumors that its leader is somehow being manipulated by Karimov himself, it can rightly be said that any news is good news.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Exit145 Spotlight: Chris Hedges

Today I had the opportunity to see Chris Hedges speak at Politics n Prose in Washington. He was discussing his new book, Losing Moses on the Freeway. I am a big fan of Hedges' writing, which has focused primarily on the horrors of war, and has been informed by his twenty years spent as a war correspondent for the New York Times and other newspapers. I first became a fan when I randomly read interviews he had given about his experiences with war, and then from his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

Hedges touched on a lot of topics during his talk. First, he explained that his dissatisfaction with the Church and his experience at Divinity School at Harvard led him to "hate liberals" (i.e. his professors) because they were out of touch with the oppressed and poor people whose interests they purported to represent. He thought the best way for him to fight fascism and assist the poor and oppressed would be to travel to El Salvador, where a civil war was occurring, and to report on it. His experience in war led him to believe, though, that it is nothing more than a destructive force that invades and corrupts every aspect of society. There is no glory in war, only pain, suffering, and death. And, finally, he touched on how the modern Christian Right constitute northing short of a powerful, fascist movement in America right now, which is the topic of a recent cover story he wrote for Harper's Magazine (and the topic of his next book). Hedges noted that they preach hatred and intolerance - of gays, liberals, and non-believers of any kind - and advocate the elimination of all who are not one of them. He commented that their movement is being legitimized by the left who has - for whatever reason - begun to engage and consequently further legitimize them.

The question and answer section was lively, and not very satisfactory. I asked Hedges two questions. One, what advice he would have for an aspiring war correspondent (sorry Dad). He said that he would first tell them not to do it, that they would have to be insane to do so, and began to list off the various ways in which the job destroys your mental and physical well-being. I interrupted him, though, and asked him if he regretted it. He said "no, because it enabled me to see the truth about war." When I spoke to him after the talk, he told me "don't go to war" and I said "you are not very persuasive when you say you did not ultimately regret it." I also asked him, "You write so articulately on the horrors of war, yet I know you are not a pacifist. With all due respect, when is war justified?" Hedges replied that indeed he was not a pacifist, that a discussion of pacifism among the Sandanista rebels would result in laughter. Pacifism is not an option when you are under attack. Before I could follow-up and ask Hedges if he theoretically supported wars, then, by foreign powers intervening on behalf of an oppressed people, he had already called on another questioner. The rest of the questions focused primarily on the current power of religion in American politics, and Hedges discussed the righteousness of MLK's message, and how religiosity should always be a personal thing, and should never be intermingled with power, or attempted to be legislated. He does not think that the Religious Right should be engaged or legitimized, because in the end, they are not intellectually awake, and cannot be convinced that their hatred and intolerance and power-mongering is anti-Christian and anti-Religious.

Hedges looked a lot older in person than I expected. He said that when he wrote War is a Force he was living in a studio apartment in New York with just a futon and a computer, and that a lot of afternoons he was unable to write because he would sit at his desk and just cry. He also said he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though not a debilitating case of it. I happened to overhear someone else ask him why he had stayed on as a war correspondent for 20 years when it was so obviously destructive to his physical and mental health. He said that part of the reason was that he had become addicted to the adrenaline rush of war, but partially it was loyalty to his fellow war correspondents who had been killed. He felt he was honoring their legacy.

I want to finish Moses on the Freeway and think more about what he said before commenting much further on Hedges. And while I do respect the man greatly and think he has a lot of fascinating and insightful things to say, I am skeptical about how his beliefs translate into a coherent foreign policy, or at least one that does not embrace an isolationist pacifism.
-- Eric

If you think that's a freedom fighter, I've got a bridge for sale

Hey folk(s), it's been quite a while since I danced not-so-nimbly across this page. My diligence and manhood have been questioned after a shocking dearth of posts and one reader went so far as to call me a disgrace to the blogging community. Those critics may be a tad disappointed now that I'm back.

One of the largest problems I have with the coverage of the Iraq war is the usage of the term "insurgent" or "the insurgency." There were undoubtedly Baathist elements involved in the early stages of the fighting (and, to a lesser degree, they still exist). And it would by naive to think that there are no forces in Iraq whose singular goal is to create political change solely within Iraq. But it seems quite clear to me that the overwhelming majority of these "insurgents" are jihadists pure and simple. Not Iraqi freedom fighters. Not Iraqi anything. No, they are extremist Islamic terrorists.

At this point, the majority of these men are not Iraqi. They are by in large Syrian and Saudi and fight not for a goal or unified set of beliefs as much as they work together against a common enemy – the U.S. For quite some time, common thinking held that the sooner the Sunni minority was incorporated into the government and elective process, the sooner the suicide bombings, IED bombings and mortar attacks would subside. Yet the violence has increased noticeably despite recent willingness on the part of the Sunnis to enter the political fold. Not only are these 'insurgents' targeting civilians but they lack any sort of alignment with a semi-legitimate political party ala Sinn Fein-IRA.

At times during the American Revolution, forces led by General Washington engaged in what can be described as insurgent warfare. A similar argument could be made for the tactics of Massoud's forces in Afghanistan against the Soviets and later against the Taliban. Likewise for the North Vietnamese during the aptly named Vietnam War. These insurgencies differ from what we are seeing in Iraq in that they had goals that ended within the boundaries of their own countries. What we are witnessing in Iraq is a terrorist movement, orchestrated and implemented by the very same forces that brought 9/11 to bear. They have but one goal: destruction of the United States. Whether we were in Iraq, Iran, Syria or elsewhere, we would be facing the same enemy--perhaps the very same men--motivated by the same beliefs and ideals.

The forces fighting against U.S. and Iraqi troops (and terrorizing the public) would not remain effective were it not for the support of nearby legitimate governments, namely Syria. President Bashar Assad is nimbly playing both sides of the fence on this issue by withdrawing troops from Lebanon and jailing known terrorists on one the one hand while on the other hand releasing said terrorists nearly immediately after their incarceration. It is a game well-practiced by like-minded middle eastern states; for years, the Saudi and Jordanian royal families have whispered sweet nothings in the ear of the U.S. while implicitly and explicitly supporting clerics and organized groups militarily opposed to the U.S. and its interests. Unfortunately for the Assads of the world, the initiator of such actions rarely wins in the long run. It is only a matter of time before Assad (and others like him) will face the rath of those he encourages (the extremists) and those who he seeks to damage (United States).

Regardless, people who blow up diners and street markets do not constitute an insurgency. They are terrorists, pure and simple. They deserve to be addressed as such.


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Hitchens in my Plan

Last Friday, Exit 145 had the chance to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about his new book on Thomas Jefferson. I went mainly to learn a little bit about Thomas Jefferson and to see the famously contrarian writer speak. He didn't disappoint, and even interrupted his otherwise dignified and erudite presentation to comment that his visit to North Korea taught him that the country is "seriously fucked up."

Christopher Hitchens writes that partisanship is a good thing in the Wilson Quarterly this month, effectively dismissing my call for a post-partisan America. Hitchens, though, does not address how partisan wrangling can impair the ability of a nation to focus on and defend itself against a foreign threat, which is my point of criticism.

Also, don't miss this Hitchens piece on Wolfowitz from March 2005.
-- Eric

Monday, June 20, 2005

Neal Pollack, Your Name Sounds Familiar

Can somebody fill me on the back-story of this Neal Pollack essay in the New York Times Book Review? I know I have read him before, but I can't remember where. Is he a real person?
-- Eric