Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Omen

The kidnapping of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit on Sunday is dire news to anyone concerned about the prospects of peace in Israel-Palestine. My response to this affair is conditioned by my personal convictions as both a Jew and a Zionist. On the one hand and foremost, I hope fervently that Shalit is unharmed and will be returned safely to his family. Beyond this, however, I hope that Israeli and American leaders will draw the right lessons from this perilous moment moving forward. Sunday's attack is undeniably a gratuitous provocation, but it is nonetheless an omen of what will surely come if Israel continues down the path of unilateralism staked out by Ariel Sharon.

Israeli officials assert that the seizure of an Israeli military hostage was one of the primary aims of Sunday's raid, the ultimate goal being to negotiate for the release of Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel. The former part of this analysis makes sense- the effort expended and risk undertaken by the perpetrators of the raid indicate that the seizure of Shalit was not an arbitrary whim. The latter assertion, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. Their refusal to release any information that would confirm Shalit's status casts suspicion on the seriousness with which his captors approach potential negotiations. Moreover, the prospects of negotiation are slim at best, while an Israeli military incursion into Gaza is a virtual certainty as a result of Sunday's raid. Unless the militants are supremely daft they must understand these odds, thus in all likelihood it was not the extremely tenuous negotiations but the all-but-definite Israeli military incursion that was the true object of Sunday's raid.

Why would Palestinian militants want to provoke an Israeli military incursion into Gaza? Because it is the only way to undermine Kadima's strategy of unilateral disengagement. The perpetrators of Sunday's raid are not merely anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, they are opposed in principle to any successful two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Polls show that most Paletinians are opposed to Kadima's unilateralist policy because they feel it will ultimately establish boundaries between Israel and Palestine that are unfair. Even so, if pressed they would most likely admit that a Palestinian state with abridged borders is preferrable to no Palestinian state at all. The militants who carried out Sunday's raid would not agree with this majority consensus, however.

For Sunday's attackers anything short of a Palestinian state that occupies all of Israel-Palestine is an unconditional defeat. They would thus prefer a situation in which the Israeli army occupied every inch of Israel-Palestine to one in which a stable and sovereign Palestinian government was ensconced in Gaza and the West Bank. As long as the bloodshed and hardship continue the militants' dream of "Greater Palestine" (in their minds, at least) remains theoretically possible, as enough violence might someday lead to the collapse of the Israeli state. A stable and sovereign Palestinian state bordering Israel would cut off all chance of "Greater Palestine," as that government would have a vested interest in cooperating with Israel to keep violence to a minimum. Sunday's raid was thus not merely an attack on Israel, but an attack on the peace process itself.

Unfortunately, if Ehud Olmert moves forward with Kadima's planned unilateral disengagement Sunday's attack will serve as a harbinger of things to come. Unilateralism may seem like a magic knife that can cut the Gordian knot of disputed Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty, but in the final analysis it is only a formula for putting extremists and terrorists in the driver's seat of Arab-Israeli relations. Drawing a line in the sand and building a wall on it will undoubtedly increase Israelis' security in the short term, but in the long run no wall can stand in place of diplomacy in dertermining Israel's boundaries. Sunday's attack shows that any wall is permeable. Tunnels can be dug under it, missiles can be fired over it. A determined opponent will, given time enough and murderous effort, succeed in launching a provocation that demands a response and undermines any attempt at unilateral disengagement. As Kadima moves forward with its planned disengagement in the West Bank this problem will evolve a domestic dimension as well. Extremists on the Israeli side are not likely to give up dreams of "Greater Israel" in the face of a Kadima defensive wall, they will almost certainly launch similarly provocative attacks into Palestinian territory by way of undermining any stable two-state peace.

Nothing justifies Sunday's attack against Israel, as it can only result in more bloodshed and hardship for all of Israel-Palestine's residents. Nor is it realistic to expect Israel to refrain from taking military action when one of her soldiers is in mortal jeopardy. Hopefully, however, Israel's leaders will read the signs of this sad affair for what they portend- unilateral disengagment will never ultimately lead to enduring stability, security and peace. Israel must have a sovereign and authoritative Palestinian counterpart with which to negotiate a two-state resolution and to coordinate joint efforts at security. If such a Palestinian partner does not now exist this is not an argument for unilateralism, but a sign that Israeli leaders must assist those on the Palestinian side, like Mahmoud Abbas, who are committed to a two-state solution to establish their authority so that a bilateral peace process may move forward.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Complex Specter of Vietnam

Comparisons to Vietnam began haunting the Bush administration's Iraq policy even before the Coalition invasion was launched in 2003. The specter of Vietnam is not a simple or univalent influence on the US political climate surrounding the Iraq conflict, however. It impinges upon the perceptions of both opponents and supporters of the Bush policy in complex ways that reflect the vagaries of memory and its perceived reverberations in future policy.

Opponents of the Iraq policy (among which I count myself) are frustrated not only or least by the sense that "the lessons of Vietnam" have been ignored, but that in certain political circles those lessons themselves remain ambiguous more than thirty years after the fall of Saigon. The image of "the last helicopter" leaving the US embassy in April 1975 leaves no doubt that the US Vietnam policy was a failure, the reasons for that failure, however, remain contested.

For those who opposed the Vietnam War (with whom I retrospectively agree, having been born at the conflict's height) the Vietnam policy ultimately failed because it was flawed at the outset. Certain pundits, however, insist that the Vietnam War was "lost" not because of any prior deficiency in US policy but because of domestic opposition among the American public and political leadership. This latter argument manifests in several forms, the most empirically plausible of which is the assertion that at the conflict's tail end the Nixon administration's policy of "Vietnamization would have worked" had it not been undermined by withdrawal of funding by a Democratic Congress in 1974 and 1975.

Arguments that US Congressional miserliness doomed the Thieu regime are dubious at best. Congress did barter down the executive's proposed package of aid in fiscal year 1974, but this was not an exceptional case of appropriational wrangling. A supplemental request for additional military aid made by the Ford administration never reached the appropriations stage before the collapse of the Thieu regime. Despite failing to meet Nixon administration targets (which were likely inflated in anticipation of Congressional bargaining) US aid to South Vietnam was expansive- 4 billion dollars from the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, with an additional 1 billion dollars of donated equipment. By 1974 South Vietnam, a nation of 20 million people, had the world's fourth largest army and air force and fifth largest navy. The South Vietnamese military initially enjoyed a 4 to 1 superiority in heavy weapons over that of the North. Under these conditions the idea that the South was defeated for lack of bullets is a stretch of the imagination.

Moreover, the notion that Congress was ultimately responsible for the collapse of South Vietnam rests on two false assumptions. The first is a misunderstanding of what role any legislature may play in the conduct of an armed conflict. Any battle that depends on particular action by a legislative body is lost from the outset- a body like Congress simply cannot be relied upon to respond with the kind of alacrity that warfare demands.

Secondly, the "Congress lost Vietnam" myth assumes a degree of control over events in Southeast Asia that the United States never had. At most Congressional action helped catalyze a crisis of confidence within South Vietnam that hastened the collapse of the Thieu regime. But a government whose legitimacy balanced so precariously on perceptions of the American political climate was bound to collapse sooner or later, the idea that a further infusion of cash could have precluded such a crisis altogether is a fantasy. In the end the fate of the Thieu regime is not best epitomized by the fabled "last US helicopter," but by the South Vietnamese F-5E jet flown by Lt. Nguyen Thanh Trung that made three bombing passes over President Thieu's residence on April 8, 1975. Any regime so lacking in coherence and political control that it would find such an expensive and destructive asset turned against itself could not stand long. Ultimately South Vietnam was not defeated by a lack of US volition or even a failure of South Vietnamese leadership, but by the aggregate unwillingness of the Vietnamese people themselves to live in a partitioned nation.

The "Congress lost Vietnam" myth does not have enormous traction in the American public perception of Vietnam and its legacy. Even so, opponents of the Bush policy in Iraq may be forgiven for fearing that such myths continue to distort foreign policy. Structurally similar myths to those that precipitated and persist in the wake of Vietnam are propounded in support of the decision to invade Iraq and by way of apology for the mission's setbacks.

First among these is the idea that the invasion of Iraq was a necessary blow against the global power and influence of Al Qaeda. This notion persists despite being demonstrably false- even with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week Al Qaeda enjoys far greater purchase in Iraq now than it did in April of 2003. The consistent invocation of the "war on terror" in defense of the Bush Iraq policy echoes calls for "containment" during the Vietnam War. Both arguments overestimate the degree to which the perceived threat (global Communism or political Islam) expresses itself universally uniformly and to which local conditions are shaped by larger geopolitical forces. Just as the expense and destruction of the Vietnam War could not be justified in terms of its impact on global Communism, the human and material costs of Iraq will not be worth the damage inflicted on Al Qaeda (assuming that, in the best case scenario, Al Qaeda's strategic position is ever materially degraded by events in Iraq at all).

The second disturbing myth current in the Iraq crisis is the structural doppleganger of the "Congress lost Vietnam" myth: the idea that the current Iraqi insurgency would not exist (or would be much attenuated) if there were no domestic US opposition to or criticism of the war. This latter myth rests upon the same faulty reasoning of the former, an assumption that the US enjoys far greater control over local political developments internationally than it ever actually has. The Iraqi insurgency exists because a certain critical mass of Iraqis are intrinsically opposed to the Baghdad government the Coalition is trying to establish, and that opposition is not reducible to nationalistic anger at US imperialism. If the US departed tomorrow the insurgency would continue and even intensify, because the Baghdad regime embodies forces (multiethnic rule, democracy, relative secularism, protection of Shi'ite religious freedom) with which the insurgents (to varying degrees) will not be reconciled.

Given the eery parallelism between the myths surrounding Vietnam and those surrounding Iraq, opponents of the Bush administration's policy might reasonably fear the long-term consequences of any degree of success in Iraq. Despite the clear failure of the Vietnam policy, myths such as the "Congress lost Vietnam" canard seem to have had just enough traction to bring those who propound them back into control of the US' foreign policy apparatus for another bite at the apple. If such a costly and misguided policy could be launched on such a flimsily established precedent one trembles at the prospect of what might be attempted on the basis of even provisional success in Iraq.

Such reasoning must be tempered by two considerations, however. First is that it rests on an overestimation of the degree to which Vietnam precedents figured in to the initiation of the Iraq policy. The policy pundits who gave us Iraq never wholly subscribed to US strategic doctrine during the Cold War, at the time they were advocates of "rollback" rather than containment. The Rumsfeld Defense Department knew full well that the very structure of the 21st century all-volunteer US military was predicated on the assumption that it would never be engaged in a prolonged occupation such as Vietnam. Their decision to go ahead with the invasion of Iraq was rooted in the conviction that it would not develop into an extended occupation, they did not so much ignore the lessons of Vietnam as obstinately insist those lessons were irrelevant.

Moreover, in contemplating Iraq one must hold in mind that the complexion of total failure there would look very different than the previous case of Vietnam. If the current insurgents could be expected to form a coherent state that would be bad enough, as they do not have anything approaching the nationalist goals or credentials of the Viet Cong or the NVA. Instead, however, the more likely outcome of a complete failure of the Bush policy would be total, destructive anarchy. A failed state in Iraq would result not only in untold misery for the Iraqi people and a vastly amplified terror threat to the United States, but might well spill over into a broader regional conflict that could make prior events in Laos and Cambodia pale by comparison.

Ultimately provisional success is the best possible scenario for which the US and the Coalition might hope, and even that outcome is beyond the power of the US or its allies to guarantee- it can only be brought about by courage and skill on the part of Iraq's leaders. Even so, the possible future ramifications of provisional success in Iraq are troubling to consider. If even Vietnam can be spun as a worthwhile and all-but-won cause, should Baghdad win through to stability one cannot but fear what expenditure of blood and treasure might be advanced on that precedent in years to come. In the final analysis, however, such thinking amounts to an abdication of the duty of citizenship. Baghdad will hopefully establish its authority over a stable Iraqi state and the violence in that beleaguered country will subside. If and when that happens US proponents of the current Iraq policy will trumpet it as a great victory and a vindication of the policy from its outset. Such a political climate will place a great burden upon those of us who know how ill-conceived this policy was. We will have to redouble our commitment to remain politically engaged, to insist on a clear and factual assessment of the Bush administration's policy and its consequences, and to see that future foreign policy is not predicated on the same faulty thinking that prevailed in March of 2003.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Goodbye and Good Riddance

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq yesterday must come as welcome news to anyone concerned about the fate of Iraq, the US, or the world at large. As leader of one of the most violent and high-profile elements of the insurgency Zarqawi has ordered or perpetrated execrable acts of cruelty and destruction. He lent his imprimatur to senseless and gratuitous attacks that can produce nothing but death, anarchy and mayhem. The shattered rubble of the Golden Mosque and the copious innocent blood spilled in his vicious career stand mute testimony that any portrait of Zarqawi as a "freedom fighter" is a pathetic falsehood.

The ability of the US military to track and target Zarqawi is a hopeful sign. This action is a victory for the counterinsurgency, and the soldiers and leadership of the Coalition forces deserve ample credit for carrying out a difficult and vital mission. Though the long-term strategic significance of Zarqawi's demise will take time to assess, for now it is undeniably a significant psychological triumph for the Coalition. At the very least it will detract from the insurgents' aura of inviolability and boost confidence in the prospects of the counterinsurgency among the Iraqi populace, the Coalition forces, and the international public.

All that being said, US leaders would be wise to temper caution with optimism in communicating this development to the public at large. Though the defeat of Zarqawi is undeniably a positive event in the short term, the ultimate effect it will have upon the insurgency itself is an open question. Much hinges on a question that may seem counterintuitive or obvious to some observers: did Zarqawi create the insurgency or did the insurgency create Zarqawi? This was an irresoluble question as long as Zarqawi was alive and operating in Iraq, but it might be resolved by observing how the insurgency does or does not transform in the wake of his demise.

On a surface level it is clear that Zarqawi did not create the insurgency. Though he is a foreigner to Iraq and leads a tendency of the insurgency heavily constituted of non-Iraqis his activities do not indicate that the Iraq insurgency lacks a domestic base of support. The international Al Qaeda movement to which Zarqawi swore allegiance has carried out terror attacks across the world. Yes, Al Qaeda would very much like to see the govnerment in Baghdad collapse. But the same could be said about the government of Morocco, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Indonesia, or that of any number of a host of countries that have been targeted by the movement. The only condition that can account for the disparity between the degree of violence that Zarqawi has managed to engineer in Iraq and that which Al Qaeda has produced in other nations is the fact that Zarqawi's movement was operating in support of and in tandem with a home-grown Iraqi insurgency of which it was a part. Zarqawi might have perceived himself to be an agent of an international Islamic jihad, but he only achieved the degree of purchase in Iraq that he did because his aid and leadership were perceived as instrumental to furthering the interests of a critical mass of disaffected Iraqis (principally Sunni Arabs). Zarqawi's appeal in Iraq owed as much or more to his credentials as an experienced insurgent from his Afghan days and the perceived anti-American successes of Al Qaeda post-9/11 as to his devotion to an ecumenical Islamic revolution. Zarqawi would not have been embraced by his Iraqi hosts and comrades if they had not already been intrinsically opposed to both the Coalition and the nascent Baghdad government and persuaded that Zarqawi had the "right stuff" to help defeat both.

Acknowledging that fact, however, still compels the question of how much Zarqawi's presence influenced the goals and methods of the insurgency itself. According to both Zarqawi himself and official observers among the Coalition, Zarqawi's element of the insurgency was resposible for the most lurid and destabilizing attacks of the ongoing conflict. Zarqawi lent his name to the indiscriminate homicidal assault upon the Iraqi Shi'ite community and its sacred icons that has done so much to sow the dragon's teeth of chaos in Iraq in recent months. Was this strategy one of his devising or did it grow organically from the intrinsic impulses of the insurgency itself?

At first glance the former might seem the case. The most militarily powerful opponent of the insurgency has always been the Coalition, and the strategically wise course in attempting to oust the Coalition from Iraq would have been to make common cause with all armed groups that oppose the US presence. The popular Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr had taken up arms against the Coalition twice in the immediate wake of the invasion, and even after being militarily defeated it has never been clear that his commitment to the political process is firm. The insurgency could have doubled or tripled its combat power by allying with the Mahdi Army and incorporated an "interface" that might have drawn progressively more Shi'ites into the anti-Coalition cause. Given the advantages that might have accrued from such a policy the brutally sadistic anti-Shi'ite campaign pursued by the insurgency seems anomalous, prompting suspicion that it originated in the personal initiative and leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Though such a conclusion seems plausible, there is some evidence to suggest that it is incorrect. Zarqawi's ruthless anti-Shi'ite strategy costed him in support and confidence among the international leadership of Al Qaeda. US intelligence intercepted communications from Al Qaeda leaders urging Zarqawi to ameliorate his anti-Shi'ite campaign. In the broad view it would seem clear why such would be the case- Osama bin Laden and his confederates ex-Iraq were chiefly concerned with co-ordinating an ecumenical Islamic jihad, antagonizing other Muslims (like the leaders of Iran) did not make good tactical sense toward that goal in the short term. Why, then, would Zarqawi have pursued his anti-Shi'ite strategy though it cost him standing among Al Qaeda internationally? The most likely answer is that this strategy was not dictated by Zarqawi himself but by the Iraqi hosts and comrades upon which his position of leadership among the insurgents depended. The insurgency itself is fueled as much or more by fear of a Baghdad government in which Kurds and Shi'ites enjoy significant power as it is by hatred of the US or the Coalition. Pursuing a brutally anarchic anti-Shi'ite strategy was the condition upon which Zarqawi's influence in the insurgency was sustained.

Thus though the personal defeat of Zarqawi is a step forward in the counterinsurgency for which the Coalition is to be congratulated, it would be ill advised to leap to the conclusion that a sustained Coalition troop presence is the answer to Iraq's problems. If it is true that Zarqawi and his tactics were more product than source of the insurgency then his removal does not eliminate the underlying political impulses that nurtured his sadistic career. In the end only a broad belief in and trust of the Baghdad government on the part of the Iraqi people will defeat the insurgency, and in that regard the continued presence of Coalition soldiers will prove more hindrance than help to the political defeat of the insurgents in the long run.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Re-remembering Tiananmen

Today marks the 17th anniversary of the violent suppression of China's pro-democracy movement by the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army. If Beijing is anything like the city I lived in during the 7th anniversary of those sad events it is very quiet. I was quartered in a foreign dormitory of Beijing University at the time, and the silent stillness combined with the massive presence of soldiers and police created a claustrophobic atmosphere even in what is normally a beautiful, expansive campus. Rigid precautions against anything that might hint at the repression of 1989 have become a yearly ritual in Beijing, creating a postmodern tradition in which the event is commemorated in the very effort that must be expended on forgetting.

This sad irony is made doubly tragic by the opportunity that is lost in such bouts of Orwellian doublethink. The need for political reform becomes more evident every year in the PRC. Increasing rural violence and successive ecological crises make evident the degree to which the current system is incapable of responding to China's needs. The students of Tiananmen may have been naive and idealistic, but it becomes harder and harder to escape the conclusion that they were right.

Reforming a political system as complex and vast as that of China will not, assuming it is ever possible, be easy. It would be comforting to assume that reform has not happened because the CCP leadership are hidebound ideologues or power-mad despots. Even if China's leadership were exclusively composed of visionaries, statespersons, and patriots (and there is no reason to assume that China lacks enough of these to get the job done) the necessary reform would be excruciatingly difficult and could easily degenerate into cataclysmic violence despite everyone's good intentions. Though the reasons for China's political stagnation are obviously diverse and complicated, one powerful factor is the fear that any proactive step could set off a violent chain reaction leading to anarchy or worse.

Given both the acute risk and urgent necessity of reform no opportunity should be lost that might forestall or ameliorate the crisis toward which China is heading. Though nothing will serve as a magic bullet to make change easy or painless, one "baby step" that might ease the system onto the road to redemption without violence would be the rehabilitation of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstators and a reversal of the official verdict on that movement as a "counterrevolutionary" putsch. The time is past to "re-remember" Tiananmen. If the CCP had the courage to admit that the student protesters of 1989 were sincere patriots and that the repression of their movement was wrong it could set in motion a constructive dialogue about the system's problems and necessary change. Though admittedly an incremental move, such a dialogue just might set China on the path toward enduring stability and prosperity.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Haditha Tragedy

U.S. soldiers entered a town after the enemy had surrendered. A group of unarmed civilians accused of looting were gathered together in a bombed-out factory and summarily shot. Among the dead were children.

The town was Canicatti, Sicily during July of 1943. The soldiers were military policemen serving under the command of General George S. Patton. Accounts of what happened at Canicatti differ, but the evidence leaves little doubt that a terrible atrocity was committed and that it was tightly covered up by the US high command at the time.

More recent events at Haditha, Iraq come to light in a superpoliticized atmosphere and are sure to deepen the partisan divide between those who support the Bush policy and those who do not. Arguments over what happened or who is to blame add little moral clarity to what is, in the final analysis, an ineffable human tragedy. Beyond this, no amount of moral clarity will do much to illuminate the significance of Haditha for the Coalition mission in Iraq.

Juxtaposing Haditha with Canicatti helps clarify its broader ramifications in ways that no amount of wrangling over the specific tragedy can. Rightly or wrongly, the growing public perception in both Iraq and the US is that something comparable to (or worse than) the massacre at Canicatti transpired in Haditha. If, in fact, such a horror did occur it no more serves as a blanket indictment of the Coalition mission in Iraq than Canicattti does of the Allied mission in World War II. However, the strategic significance of Haditha does infinitely outweigh that of Canicatti because of the structural differences between the Iraq conflict and World War II.

World War II was a war of position and maneuver, it was decided by the deployment and engagement of large capital assets (tanks, guns, planes ships) over strategically critical terrain. There were some political dimensions of the conflict, but the concretely military aspects of the war were vastly more important in determining victory and defeat. The number of incidents like Canicatti committed by the Allies could have been doubled or tripled and it would not have had a material effect on the outcome of the war.

The same cannot be said of the Iraq war. The phase of the Iraq conflict that resembled WWII ended after the short weeks in which Saddam Hussein's army was tactitly routed. The conflict since then has not been a war of position and maneuver (though the Bush adminsitratioin has been inclined to treat it as such), but a long, hard counterinsurgency. Like WWII the Iraq counterinsurgency has both political and military dimensions, but in the case of Iraq their relative importance to the outcome of the conflict are inverted. The old saw is no less true for being by now cliche- counterinsurgency warfare is 80% political, 20% military.

Thus though one could have doubled or tripled the number of atrocities committed by US troops in World War II without retarding the Allies' strategic position, every act of misconduct in Iraq costs the Coalition dearly. The only hope of victory in Iraq is to bleed the insurgency of civilian support and political legitimacy, and rightly or wrongly every act of misconduct by Coalition forces solidifies the insurgents'support and political standing. This was a hard reality that the US and its allies faced coming into the Iraq conflict, and it is a central fact driving events now.

Where a dozen Canicattis may not have been enough to sink the Allied war effort, in the wake of Abu Ghraib Haditha is one tragedy too many for the Coalition. The actual events of Haditha are in some respects moot by now in this regard- Premier Maliki's unequivocal excoriation of the Coalition troops demonstrates that the Iraqi public has already rendered its verdict. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the Iraqi government would distance itself so urgently from the very soldiers it relies on to maintain order.

Does this mean that the Coalition mission is now doomed to failure and the insurgency will win? No- the insurgency will never possess the coherence and substantive political and military assets necessary to conquer, much less govern, Iraq. But the strategic efficacy of the Coalition force is severely depleted in the long term. One year ago doubling the number of Coalition soldiers in Iraq (in concert with progress in the nascent Iraqi political process) might have had some hope of turning the strategic tide against the insurgency. Now that hope is gone- no troop increase can have any positive impact given the political handicap under which the Coalition must now work. The only viable strategic option left open to the Coalition now is a staged withdrawal undertaken in tandem with a redoubled effort to help build strong Iraqi political, economic, and social institutions to lay the foundations for order and peace as Coalition soldiers depart.