Abe Foxman: polemic turns to pratfall

Foxman´s absurd scenario of a worldwide plague of Hamas-type rocketry.

Abe Foxman in HuffPo on why America should rally to Israel´s side, in the latest round of its war with Hamas, as if Washington is not rallying reflexively anyway:

We should also be standing with Israel because if we don’t, the scourge of missiles targeting civilian populations will become a world-wide epidemic.

Of all the arguments one could make now on Gaza – and many good ones have been made, here and elsewhere, sympathetic to Israelis, sympathetic to Palestinians – this must be the silliest. We must protect Manhattan from a hail of cheap rockets fired from Staten Island! But do do this, the bad guys must first seize control of Staten Island, which would surely be noticed. If Dr. Evil, with a more sophisticated version of the same plan, can defeat detection by sneaking up inshore in his super-stealth submarine, he has much better weaponry than Hamas. Sorry to be flippant, but Foxman´s scenario is indeed ridiculous.

Common sense is reinforced by the actual history of violence in the last century. The world has suffered from a fair number of states and non-state actors willing to target civilians. Have any used rockets, apart from Hitler, Hezbollah, Saddam and Hamas? (Hitler and Saddam as a tiny component of inter-state wars.) Rockets are very expensive per delivered kilo of explosive, can´t be aimed with precision, and are hard to hide. Most movements and states that have resorted to terrorising civilians, like the FLN, ETA, the IRA and the Tamil Tigers, have quite logically used bombs and guns, far cheaper and more effective. In the Cold War, rockets were reserved for nuclear weapons.

The use of explosive rockets by Hezbollah and Hamas depends on highly specific features of their conflict with Israel. On their side, they have (1) a state sponsor for supply (Iran) and (2) fairly secure territorial bases. Their adversary has (3) a dense population in a small area, hence no strategic depth, (4) superior tactics and social cohesion to prevent suicide bombs, and (5) a democratic polity making the government highly sensitive to civilian fears. Take away any of these five factors, and the tactic is infeasible or pointless.

Foxman´s tirade suceeeds a contrario in highlighting the fact that Hamas is no threat to the citizens of the United States. Is it a threat to the interests of the United States? Palmerstonian IR fundies like Mearheimer & Walt would say no. I don´t myself think you can define state interests in a democracy independently of the preferences of the electorate. If the American people want, for cultural reasons, to stand guarantor to the integrity of Israel, that´s fine by me, as long as the guarantee doesn´t slide into unconditional support of Israel´s most misguided actions. But let´s not pretend that their safety is at stake in Gaza.

BTW, if the US Congress were in the least interested in checking the executive, it would spend less time on pseudo-scandals like Benghazi statements and General Petraeus´ love-life. A better topic for investigation would be to ask what threat if any is posed now to (a) American interests, (b) ordinary Americans, by the various armed groups the Administration has chosen to attack as terrorists, the Taliban, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Take it as read that these are not our first choice of rulers of these backwaters, and their local success is terrible for women´s rights, religious minorities, and anybody else they object to. Countries don´t usually go to war to protect such interests. But do any of these gangs have the desire or the capability to pursue bin Laden´s idiosyncratic (and in the eyes of most jihadis, crazy) direct assault on the Great Satan?

Recalling Moynihan’s Wisdom When Analyzing Iraq and Iran

The great scholar-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted correctly that ethnicity was too powerful a centrifugal force for even the Soviet Union to contain. Similar perspicacity is nowhere in evidence in all the recent predictions about the emergence of an Iran-Iraq Kingdom of Greater Shi’a.

The U.S. media bears part of the blame for consistently getting wrong for more than a decade of Iraq coverage the distinction between a religion and an ethnicity. How many articles have you read discussing the “tensions within Iraq between the Sunnis and the Kurds”? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most of the Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslims, meaning that analyses that shorthand “Sunni Arab” as “Sunni” tend to be misleading. If ethnicity dissolved in religion, the Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraq would have a close and trusting relationship.

All the overstated “Iran and Iraq unity” commentary likewise ignores the fact that an Arab is not a Persian, even in those cases when both happen to be Shi’a Muslims. The two ethnic groups have different cultures, languages, outlooks and history (indeed, a history of imperial domination which breeds resentment among Iraqi Arabs and snobbery among Iranians). Tellingly, the closest ties across the Iran-Iraq border are between people with the same ethnicity: Kurds (who on the Iranian side are about 50% Shi’a).

I am reminded of the great fear of 1960s foreign policy “experts” that Viet Nam and China would become strong allies because, after all, they were both “Communist”. This ignored the imperial history of China in Viet Nam and the different languages and cultures of the two countries. For whatever reason, even smart people tend to forget that just because two groups of people are different from us does not mean that they perceive each other as similar.

Question for Gov. Romney

If you had been President, would you have caved in to the Iraqi government’s demand that U.S. servicepeople in Iraq be subject to the jurisdiction of Iraqi criminal courts?

If you had been President, would you have caved in to the Iraqi government’s demand that U.S. servicepeople remaining in Iraq be liable to criminal prosecution in Iraqi courts?

Iraqis Give a Master Class in Defensive Driving

The Washington Post today covers the continued assasinations of Iraqi government officials. Driving is a particularly dangerous time for officials: An IED can be planted on their route and detonated by cell phone when they pass, a motorcyclist can race by and plant a sticky bomb on a vehicle in the convoy, or gunmen can simply open up with Kalishnikovs from the side of the road.

The Post story reminded me of the time I spent riding with an Iraqi government minister as he kindly took me and my colleagues to see a beautiful natural spring in the country. I made some notes at the time which I reproduce below:

Unmarked, white Toyota landcruisers rocket down the highway, dodging and weaving around each other like a small swarm of bees. The cars are set to give a warning chime around 75 mph, which the driver either ignores or responds to by accelerating further. I watch for a foot to touch the brake and count the minutes – 5, 10, 15 and I stop counting. They never seem to brake, even when, as frequently, their front bumper is nearly touching the rear bumper of the car in front. At 90 miles per hour on a narrow road next to a steep gorge thousands of feet deep, they still don’t brake, even though the “guard rail” consists only of scattered stone blocks.

The drivers swerve constantly from side to side, even on two lane highways with traffic coming rapidly from the other direction. Each driver hugs the back left corner of the car in front of him, then the right. By design, no other car can come alongside any car in the convoy. A truck that tries is quickly boxed in and forced to slow down until we speed by.

After a series of bobs and weaves, another maneuver. Without any warning or a signal I can detect, a driver will accelerate even further and pass one or two other convoy members, which immediately fall in to line behind him. The rearmost car then begins its own sequence of bobbing and weaving, until it too makes the same move.

The logic slowly becomes clear: A convoy is a bit like three-card Monte. The ever shifting, nearly identical, always speeding cards are a game of “Government official government official, where is the government official?” Anyone attacking the convoy would be likely to guess incorrectly and only harm a car with unimportant people in it. Like me for example.

Leaving Iraq

David Brooks’ column [$] proposes the interesting idea that we are paralyzed in Iraq because we can’t agree how to leave. I think he’s on to something.

But first, the column has a couple of specifics that bear note.

“Senior GOP officials have told President Bush that they are unwilling to see their party destroyed by this issue.” The fact (“have told”) is probably right, and it’s especially pathetic because of the implied idea that their will has anything to do with events. Why would Cheney care what senior Republicans think? It echoes the sad spectacle of Bush announcing what he believes about this and that, as though it were considerable or consequential any more. Anyway, the party wasn’t destroyed by the issue, it was destroyed by the wilful blindness and enabling of evil and stupidity by just those leaders. The justice of the wind that’s going to blow, however, doesn’t make up for the damage to the republic this collapse entails. Wrecking the Republican party may be fun for the most verbrennte lefty nutcases for a while, but it won’t do nobody no good in the long run.

Brooks uses the word war, as almost everyone does, and I think it’s a big mistake. It’s an occupation, and has none of the defining qualities of a war, especially lacking an enemy who can be defeated and accept our will, or who can defeat us and form the agreements that comprise an armistice or treaty. The word also enables the ridiculous Bushian prattle about victory and success. Occupation is the right word; the Iraq war is long over and we won, trivially. The ‘war against terrorism’ and against the Protean entity called Al Qaeda also isn’t a war, and calling it one is as toxic to clear thinking as calling drug policy a war.

Getting to Brooks’ main point, I had not realized until some discussion on a TV news show recently (I’ve forgotten which) how enormous and risky the withdrawal will be. There’s an incredible amount of material that we will either abandon or have to carry out through guerrilla attacks along inadequate roads, and it will take months. A lot of what’s there is weaponry, tanks, and other whatnots we can expect to be used for trouble in lots of places, so it’s not just a matter of leaving a pile of MREs for the Iraqi’s to snack on. Night-vision gear, ground-to-air missiles, really up-to-date communications stuff, rockets with brains, and more ammunition and explosives than you can imagine, anyone?

Brooks says Petraeus will show us how to do it, in September. Poor Petraeus, a brilliant career rolling towards a precipice while everyone piles hopes and dreams on his shoulders. I do not believe one general can save us from the nightmare ahead, nor from the lesser nightmare of the moment. Indeed, I have to entertain the thought that bleeding along through Bush’s term and having the next president deal with it may, incredibly, be the least costly path. The reason for this is the truism, more and more repeated by this and that military expert in interviews and columns, that a retreat under fire is the most difficult of all military operations, coupled with Rumsfeld’s acute observation, adapted to the present case, that one undoes an occupation with the administration one has, not the one one would like to have.

The most important thing about this administration, I’m coming to believe, is not the wrongheadedness of its policies, epic and universal as that is, but its historically vicious and destructive combination of incompetence and cupidity. The withdrawal has to be accomplished by a Pentagon and State Department these guys have had more than six years to gut of clear thinkers and honest men, and private contractors by the thousands who, for the Bush team, are nothing but pigs to be stuffed at a trough of corruption and theft. How could we entrust an enterprise more dangerous and demanding and complicated than even the war to these people? It’s not a matter of intent, I emphasize. If everyone in the administration were to have a blinding flash of insight that the Iraq occupation should end now, it would be a shambles because they simply can’t execute any task. Paralysis in deciding how to leave may, in the stupid way the system sometimes gropes to a good outcome, be protecting us from horrors beyond our Mesapotamian experience to date.

Hail Mary

The shocking moment of the evening was John Thune (R-SD) on NPR’s post-mortem, looking as though he’d lost his best friend, beginning his reaction with a motto proud and bold, a ringing, confident endorsement of his chief: “well, we have to try it” …and losing enthusiasm from that point on. Is that the odds Republicans are quoting? And why do we have to try it? Why would any Republican want this new millstone around his neck?

“Hail Mary pass” is the current metaphor, but just to keep it challenging: the quarterback isn’t allowed to raise his arm above his shoulder, the receivers are shooting each other, the defense is blowing them up with IEDs, and the goal line is undefined. Right.

I can’t make sense of the first play, never mind the game plan. Iraqi police and army units are either Shi’a or Sunni. Either the Sunni are going in to Sadr City to kick butt (with Americans embedded), or the Shi’a are (ditto), or we are. In Sadr City, the militia is, approximately, the men between the ages of 15 and 60, and they live in, and shoot from, houses with women and children. If it’s the Sunni regiments, do we imagine that massacre establishes peace and coexistence (no matter who gets massacred)? If it’s the Shi’a regiments, do we imagine them more plausibly killing Mahdi Army grunts, deserting…or fragging the Americans who are urging them on to glory? If it’s us…well, that’s not what Bush said; apparently his fantasy capacity has limits.

There were no surprises in this speech; we’re beyond surprise at the dreamworld irresponsibility of this administration. Two more years of body bags and bodies in bits, the ruin of Gen. Petraeus’ career, endless more billions up in smoke, further breaking of a military that actually has useful work to do, international humiliation. It wasn’t about oil; the oil would have been cheaper to buy than to conquer and we don’t even have it. It wasn’t about WMDs. It wasn’t about Al Qaida. Water under the bridge…but what is it about now?

The best anyone’s been able to do to get behind this travesty is to point with alarm at how awful it will be if we leave now, and to assert that we “have to win”, though David Brooks can’t resist putting in the completely cynical and mendacious idea that the Democrats have some duty to come up with a plan to achieve a victory that has been completely precluded, forever, by the whole Bush program, from concept to execution. There is no making “plans” to stop the sun in the sky, to make bricks without straw, or to turn back time. When this little surge subsides and things are unchanged, it will be at least as awful if we leave then, and we still “have to win”, what then?

The SMU faculty is beginning to grumble, but can anyone explain why they will even start to begin to commence to entertain the possibility of hosting W’s presidential library?

It’s over

Mark reasonably hesitates to give up on the prospect that some sort of force surge might ameliorate a ghastly future in Iraq. One’s view on this turns on what, in his phrase, “reasonable doubt” means. I think he’s wrong; escalation isn’t drawing to an inside straight, it’s betting the Jack of Diamonds will jump out of a sealed deck and squirt cider in your ear, as Sky Masterson’s father put it.

I did not commit myself, in print or otherwise, before the Iraq invasion because although I had a sick feeling about it, a fair number of people I respect seemed to favor the idea (which doesn’t make my waffle their fault!) Now, the period comes back to me as “of course I knew all along this would go badly, I wonder why I never happened to have the occasion to say so,” but it comes back wrong: I didn’t know it all along and I was genuinely uncertain.

I have the same sick feeling about escalating the troop strength of the occupation (let’s stop calling it a war; this is nothing like a war now), but this time I’m pretty sure I know what to expect. The reason is not that I have new expertise about occupation, unconventional warfare, Iraqi politics, or just how many brigades is the magic number; it’s that the inability of the current national administration to bring any complex task to a desired end has been shown over a practical unanimity of failed enterprises. Putting Petraeus, everyone’s current model of a modern lieutenant-general, in charge of ground forces whose capacity to do anything except win pitched battles against an army was never very great and has been affirmatively trashed by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and a bunch of contractors selected for political loyalty and much better able to steal and waste than to make anything work, will not greatly change the odds. Napoleon would not have conquered Europe if he had commanded the army and bureaucracy of Portugal no matter how much he wanted to.

The historically consistent and pervasive incompetence of the Bush government is in no way limited to the armed forces, indeed the inability of every important agency to do its own job and to function effectively with others is something of a perfect global storm, for which I know no US precedent. Perhaps they are reforming? Nope, hacks and ideologues are still being given corner offices even after the election. Science is still being muffled and kneecapped, and good people are leaving the building. This complete lack of basic human leadership resources up and down the whole enterprise is the reason the Iraq escalation will founder in blood and humiliation.

The Iraq enterprise is over and it has failed. It isn’t going badly and in need of a really big push for a new plan; it’s gone beyond the imaginable capacities of the tools we have, within the constraints of the second law of thermodynamics that makes the arrow of time point one way, gone with the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Iraq will fester, smolder, and occasionally fulminate for decades. The Shi’a may impose a ruthless and wretched hegemony, or they may fall apart into factions and oversee a long war of all against all, or a Persian empire will come to rule a bunch of Arabs again. We are now irrelevant in any important way to this future, only perhaps to how rapidly it comes on. “Too late” doesn’t mean “earlier would have been better,” it means too late, and too late, by about three years, is what any escalation by this defense department, this state department, this president is. Does Bush know this, as some have speculated, and is just stalling until he can get out of office? I have no idea; it doesn’t matter.

As George Wald said when asked, “how can we get out of Vietnam?” :

“In ships!”

“Sacrifice”

Apparently President Bush is going to couch his escalation in Iraq as an appeal to “sacrifice.” Olbermann has already ridiculed the notion, but the best retort does not come from an American.

Bush’s rhetoric recalls another incompetent war leader whom he greatly resembles: Neville Chamberlain. Like Chamberlain, Bush comes from a prominent political family and has done nothing in real life to merit his position. Like Chamberlain, Bush regularly puts party before country, and he sees his party as the only legitimate governing force. And like Chamberlain, Bush deserves the response given to him in The Norway Debate by former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the country’s leader during the First World War, who knew a thing or two about politics during wartime:

It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister’s friends. It is a far bigger issue. …He [Chamberlain] has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership. The Prime Minister must remember that he has met this foe of ours in peace and in war and he always has been worsted. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.

If Bush wants to call for sacrifice, he might want to start by looking in the mirror.