Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Sheehan Phenomenon

Increasing media coverage has been lavished on Cindy Sheehan and her anti-war protest in recent weeks, imbuing her with celebrity at a speed that can only be called dizzying even for a culture as celebrity-obsessed as our own. Intense scrutiny has been focused on Ms. Sheehan's spoken comments and correspondence by way of demonstrating that, however grievous her loss, her political views are far out of step with those of the mainstream public's. However much this may be true (I myself disagree with much of what Ms. Sheehan says), it is misguided to dismiss the "Sheehan Phenomenon" as the cynical media ploy of leftist politicos, its significance does not reduce so easily. New poll numbers from Gallup this morning show that President Bush's approval rating has hit an all-time low. It would be foolish to dismiss any connection whatsoever between the President's low numbers and the media frenzy surrounding Cindy Sheehan's protest, but I would argue that that Sheehan's visibility has been buoyed by the President's downward slide, not vice-versa.

Why would this be so? Arguments about the advisablity of the Iraq war and its prospects for success continue unabated and are not likely to stop any time soon. Such debates do not control or inform public opinion, however. In reality, the Iraq war has always been, from the outset, as much a domestic political as a foreign military enterprise. The strategic undertaking of the war has always been constrained by the level of domestic support that the administration enjoyed.

Bush administration critics have taken the administration to task for planning only for the "best case scenario" in Iraq. In truth, this critique applies as much to the administration's management of domestic politics with regard to the war as to military planning. Any look at poll numbers just prior to the war show that the mandate upon which the adminstration acted was very soft and came with many strings attached; the degree of public support on which Bush rode to war left very little margin for error in the conflict's conduct.

Many arguments may be forwarded in defense of the Iraq war in the abstract- Saddam Hussein was a cruel monster from whom the Iraqi people had to be rescued, striking down despotism in Iraq might help change public opinion in the Muslim world, democracy in Iraq may help spread political reform throughout the Middle East, etc. None of these principles, however, reflect the bedrock views upon which domestic support for the Iraq war was built in the first place. Polls clearly show that by far the greatest breadth, depth, and firmness of support for the war among the US public sprang from one simple belief- that Iraq posed a clear and present threat to the US and that the invasion would remove an IMMEDIATE danger to US security.

Given that the firmest support for the Iraq war was built on this latter principle, is it any wonder that public support for the war (and the Bush administration) has begun to erode? Again, one may argue in the abstract about whether or not the Iraq war will make the US sager in the long run, but core support for the invasion was not based on "long run" expectations. Most Americans believed, on the eve of the invasion, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he had been integrally involved in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks. They thus threw their support behind the President's plan on the understanding that it would make them safer right away. Even then, most poll respondents answered that they would not favor a war that would result in many US casualties.

Right now, with casualty figures mounting and terrorist attacks in Madrid, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and London, the public is left feeling that they are paying a cost they were not willing to expend without reaping the benefits they hoped to realize in return. Consequently, the administration is left fighting a war for which it does not have a proper mandate. Though tactical conditions clearly demonstrate that more troops would aid the security situation on the ground, the administration cannot contemplate such a move because any rise in troop strength would cause a proportional rise in casualty numbers.

Cindy Sheehan's views may be extreme and her tone shrill, but her high profile and broad impact can not be put down to the machinations of a left-wing conspiracy. Her message receives the airplay it does at least in part because it resonates with what have always been the visceral feelings of the American public about this conflict. However much they overtly disagree with her, behind closed doors the Bush White House's conduct of the war is informed by the same political forces that fuel Ms. Sheehan's sojourn in the media spotlight.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Iraq and the Struggle to Change Minds

Michael Barone at Real Clear Politics cites research by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, arguing that:

Two generations ago, Americans, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths, changed minds in Germany and Japan. The Pew Global Project Attitude's metrics give us reason to believe that today's Americans, at far lower cost, are changing minds in the Muslim world.

There are several problems with this thesis. Barone notes that Pew surveys show a decline in the approval rating for "violence against civilians in the defense of Islam" in most Muslim countries (with the notable exception of Jordan). This is undoubtedly a hopeful development, but Barone makes no clear case that it may be attributed to US actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. The case is equally strong that the actions of Islamic extremists are the root cause of this change, as the decline is most dramatic in nations whose own civilians have been the target of Islamist terrorist attacks.

Barone notes also that "when asked whether democracy was a Western way of doing things or could work well in their own country, between 77 percent and 83 percent in Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and Indonesia say it could work in their country -- in each case a significant increase from earlier surveys." Again, this is all well and good. But Barone disingenuously dismisses the fact that confidence in democracy has actually declined in both Turkey and Pakistan(from 50 to 48% in the former case, from 57% to a shocking 43% in the latter), arguably the US's closest allies in the "war on terror." Though a plurality in both countries still express confidence in democracy, the Pew report itself shows that majorities or pluralities in all the nations surveyed have had confidence in democracy going back to before the invasion of Iraq. Barone would contend that the net decrease in Pakistan and Turkey is the result of domestic affairs while the net increase in Indonesia, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan is the result of US actions, but this is a highly selective and speculative conclusion that can not be substantiated without further research.

The survey results that most unequivocally support Barone's thesis are the decrease both in "unfavorable" views of the US and approval of suicide attacks against US soldiers in Iraq. The former "change" is somewhat dubious, however, in that the US was still looked upon unfavorably by a clear majority in all of the nations surveyed but one (Morocco- 49%-44% favorable). Even if the invasion of Iraq can be credited for this change, one can not help but wonder whether the same incremental shift might have been achieved by less destructive means. The decrease in approval of suicide bombings in Iraq is more substantively encouraging, but here again Barone's optimism draws upon an incomplete picture. Though support for suicide bombings is down across the boards, a majority still express approval of the bombings in Morocco, Lebanon, and Jordan. The only country where the approval-disapproval ration has reversed is Pakistan (in 2004 Pakistanis surveyed favored the bombins 46%-36%, now they oppose them 29%-56%). What this says about Pakistani attitudes toward US policy is mitigated, however, by the fact that Pakistan is one of only two countries surveyed in which confidence in Osama bin Laden has risen (+6%, a statistic made more worrisome by the high probability that Pakistan is the nation where bin Laden currently resides).

Moreover, support for the insurgency was a majority opinion in all the countries for which statistics were availabe but one (Turkey) as late as March of 2004. This would indicate that Muslim attitudes toward the invasion of Iraq are malleable. Developments since 2004 have decreased opposition to the Coalition mission (though again, such opposition remains a majority opinion in half of the countires surveyed), but subsequent developments could cause a reversal of that trend.

Barone would read the Pew statistics as evidence of the success of US policies since 9/11. Unfortunately, they do not support either this conclusion or an argument for the wisdom of US policies in the first place.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Singing the Gaza Blues

The sound and fury surrounding this week's Israeli pullout from the Gaza strip is a sad index of the difficult road ahead toward peace. 1.7 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the population of Israeli settlers has never risen above 7 thousand. Withdrawal from Gaza is a first indispensible step toward the creation of a Palestinian state, an outcome that virtually all reasonable participants in and observers of Israeli-Palestinian relations accept as necessary. If evacuating Gaza, which has never had deep emotional resonance for religious Zionists, stirs up this cloud of turmoil, the prospects for disengagement from the West Bank and East Jerusalem seem bleak. Unlike Gaza the West Bank and East Jerusalem contain sites of great symbolic importance to religious Zionists and house over 300,000 Israeli settlers.

The histrionics surrounding the Gaza pullout amply illustrate the part-comic, mostly tragic conundrum at the heart of the failure of the Oslo and subsequent peace accords. Religious Zionist settlers are the one insurmountable obstacle standing in the way of Palestinian statehood and Israeli-Palestinian peace. These settlers were cynically encouraged by the Likud party to invest themselves in the Occupied Territories in what could only have been a foolhardy game of brinksmanship- threatening Palestinians with the prospect of a "Greater Israel" that was never politically or demographically tenable in order to force them to the bargaining table. Now the Likud Sharon government finds itself hostage to its own manipulative policies, as the Gaza pullout demonstrates just how hard it will be to sell those religious settlers, whose views Likud never shared, down the river.

In fairness, the Gaza drama also provides ample evidence of extremism and bad faith on the Palestinian side. Pronouncements by groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad that the pullout represents a "triumph of arms" are deeply viscious attempts to undermine support for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence among the Israeli electorate. Portraying disengagement as a sign of Israeli weakness can only hamper efforts to do what is necessary to further the goal of peace, and Hamas' execrable propoganda can only come from those who are resigned to endless violence.

Even so, Hamas ultimately derives more political power from a delayed peace process than it does from transparently empty bravado. Anti-Zionism (which I understand as the denial of Israel's right to exist) is anti-Semitism, but not all Zionisms are equal. Those who hamstring the peace process through devotion to unrealistic and unjust political ideals are a threat to Israel's security as grave as that posed by Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Israel's rightful territory exists outside of the Green Line of occupation- anyone who would further the cause of peace must adhere to that first principle.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Consequentialism and Iraq

Through my dear friend, Kate Marie at "What's the Rumpus" I've been cued in to an essay by Tyler Cowen on "consequentialist" arguments for and against war (at "Marginal Revolution,"
marginalrevolution/2005/08/iraq_and_conseq.html). Cowen asserts that the consequentialist argument against war is flawed by a failure to assess its "marginal product," or the difference between the ills that the invasion will produce and the ills that would result from a failure to invade:

"Today we see many signals that things are going badly. But most of those signals also imply that things would have gone very badly under the alternative scenario for Saddam's fall. A civil war, for instance, may well have happened anyway, albeit later."

This argument is freighted with some weighty assumptions. Firstly, Cowen's suggestion that civil war "may well have happened anyway" is far from obvious- quite the contrary. Since the creation of Iraq in 1920 its government has seen at least half a dozen changes of regime, some of them quite violent, without engendering civil war. The closest was the uprising immediately following the first Gulf War, but as that would not have occurred without US encouragement it can hardly serve as a gauge of "likely counterfactuals." The current civil war has broken out under the peculiar circumstances of the Coalition invasion, and to suggest that this policy has only catalyzed the inevitable is a distortion.

Cowen continues this line of reasoning:

"One might argue that U.S. participation makes an Iraqi civil war much worse than otherwise (perhaps the presence of U.S. forces motivates insurgents). But I don't find this convincing. First, a civil war could be much worse without the U.S. presence (keep in mind the alternative scenario also involves many years of continued sanctions, or what Saddam would have done without sanctions, plus further suffering under Saddam). Second, the correct cost of the war -- at least to the Iraqis -- would be this difference in outcomes, not the current absolute level of badness."

The argument that civil war is exacerbated by the US presence is not convincing unless one pauses to examine a few facts. An indisputable byproduct of the Coalition invasion has been the immense surge of power and influence for Al Qaeda and other radical Sunni Islamist groups in Iraq. The humiliation of the Ba'ath regime combined with the crippling of the Iraqi state's internal security structure have given radical Sunni Islamists a strategic purchase in Iraq that they never enjoyed there before. Because these jihadists have little stake in the survival of the Iraqi state or the integrity of the Iraqi nation they may ultimately wreak more havoc than any combatants in a wholly "homegrown" civil war would cause, if such a war had broken out in the first place.

Cowen himself tries to finesse this point:

"The pro-war right seems keen to argue that much of the insurgency is foreign fighters. This in reality weakens their case, as it opens the possibility that the U.S. role drew in these forces. Insofar as the insurgents are Sunnis, fighting for domestic control, it is more likely they would have been fighting anyway, with or without the U.S. involved. That would strengthen a consequentialist case for the war."

Unless Cowen is determined to ignore the evidence that much of the insurgency is carried on by foreign fighters, then right here the "consequentialst case for the war" is sunk. There is absolutely no evidence that foreign fighters would flock to Iraq in the absence of the Coalition presence. It did not happen in 1991, nor did non-Iraqi Sunnis flock to Iraq to fight against invading Shi'ite hoards during the Iran-Iraq war. Cowen's assertion that Sunni Iraqis "would have been fighting anyway," moreover, ignores the fact that Sunni Iraqis would certainly not have thrown their lot in with radical Islamists had the Coalition never invaded. Foreign fighters are infiltrating Iraq and (as in the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) are increasingly taking a lead role in the domestic Sunni insurgency. This is not the natural result of domestic Iraqi politics, but transpires entirely because the Coalition invasion has transformed Iraq into a staging area for international Islamist "jihad."

Cowen's final summation departs the realm of logic altogether

"There is of course the separate question of what is good for the U.S. and for other countries besides Iraq. If you think Iraq will go badly no matter what, those considerations may well be decisive. But it sounds selfish and defeatist to cite those arguments alone, so we are again left with anti-war cases which do not make complete sense."

Why consideration of the welfare of the world beyond Iraq should be "selfish and defeatist" is a puzzlement, but even should it be so why, when combined with the assessment that "Iraq will go badly no matter what," it amounts to an argument that "[does] not make complete sense" is a total wonder. Even if one should grant that the situation in Iraq will definitely be no worse due to the Coalition invasion (a conclusion that the facts do not support), all things being equal it makes sense to oppose the war because of the harm it will bring to the world at large. The blood and treasure lost by the US and its allies is the least consideration in this regard- the strength that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are steadily gaining from the Iraq conflict and the opportunity cost of having US power hobbled by an uncontrollable military commitment are both grave threats to the security of the world.

Finally, the most glaring logical error in Cowen's calculations is his assumption that consequentialist arguments "against invasion" may only be assessed against those "for invasion." This presumes that invasion was the only proactive course of action open to the US and its allies, a proposition that is of course ridiculous. As I have argued in previous posts, it was at best blind hubris to attempt to force another nation to reform before first reforming ourselves in fundamental ways that would aid the situation. US dependence on Mideast oil helped keep despots like Saddam Hussein in power, breaking that dependence might have helped loosen his grip. Even had that not proven true, a US free from oil dependence would have labored under fewer political handicaps if and when invasion was deemed "necessary," greatly increasing the chances for successful post-war reconstruction. For this reason alone the US was obliged to at least attempt such a course of action before unleashing the destruction of war.