Monday, April 30, 2007

Spitzer Makes History, Democrats Should Follow

In fulfillment of a campaign promise, newly elected Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York has proposed legislation to the New York State Assembly that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state. Though the prospects for passage of the bill are low even in a legislature controlled by Mr. Spitzer's own party, already he has made history by being the first governor to give the support of his executive office to this issue. In doing so the Governor shows remarkable courage and integrity, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that though it is inconsequential for President Bush to propose a constitutional amendment "defending marriage," it would be political suicide for any Democrat aspiring to executive office to champion the cause of same-sex marriage rights.

Eliot Spitzer has shown a way for Democratic candidates going into the election in 2008. "Wedge issues" such as same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom have fueled GOP electoral support for decades, and the conservative media have so dominated the national discourse on these topics that Democrats remain in perpetual retreat in these realms. When George W. Bush declares that he is willing to amend the constitution but Hilary Clinton or Jonathan Edwards or whatever other Democrat one cares to mention declares that s/he is for "civil unions" but against same-sex marriage the President looks like a person who has the courage of his convictions and Democrats look like intellectual and moral cowards.

Same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom are civil and human rights issues, they are concerned with securing for ourselves and our fellow citizens the liberties and protections promised to all Americans in the founding principles of our Republic. Opponents of these concerns may have a moral sensibility that deserves respect, but such respect should not extend to a dilution or repudiation of the profound philosophical and moral principles upon which the urgent advocacy of same-sex marriage rights and reproductive freedom rest. Relying on the courts to secure same-sex couples and women their civil rights is a failing strategy. History shows that the courts have been a regressive force as often as they have been a progressive force on issues of civil and human rights. Moreover, housing such concerns in the courts places a distorting strain on those institutions that they were never designed to sustain and that is harmful to our Republic in the long term.

I would urge all Democratic candidates in the upcoming election to follow Eliot Spitzer's lead. A bold advocacy of same-sex marriage rights and reproductive freedom would raise quite a hue and cry, and would no doubt energize the conservative base of the GOP. But at the same time it would cast the debate over these issues into clear terms and foreground them in ways that would bring out the real majority tenor of American public opinion. The next Democratic presidential hopeful should call for our Constitution to be amended to defend same-sex marriage rights in all fifty states and to permanently defend a woman's right to choose an abortion throughout the Union. Such a move might drive some conservative independents toward the GOP, but it would bring far more disenchanted liberals back to the fold who are tired of the moral equivocation of recent Democratic campaigns. Moreover, though a bold advocacy position might not achieve a constitutional change, it would demand a precise and logical debate on these issues that would deflate much of the obfuscatory rhetoric that has served the GOP so well. A genuine debate about these issues might just demonstrate to Americans on both the left and right that they are not quite as far apart on these issues as television and radio pundits make them out to be.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Wrong Reid on Iraq

Last week's comments on Iraq by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to the effect that "this war is lost," mirror the dysfunctional thinking of the Bush regime. I stand with Congressional Democrats who oppose the White House's conduct of Iraq policy, but Mr. Reid's critique is at best a poor political strategy for effecting a remedy. Mr. Bush persists in casting Iraq as a "win or lose" situation, but this logic is itself one of the reasons why the US remains mired in a strategic deadfall in Iraq. Declaring the war "lost" only throws gasoline on the fire of delusion that the Bush White House has ignited and keeps stoking.

If Democrats agree with Mr. Bush that Iraq is a "win-lose" scenario and insist that the only aspect in which the President is wrong is that we have already "lost," they will find their political support among the American electorate evaporating. Americans may be very disenchanted with the reasons why the US invaded Iraq, but they remain persuaded when supporters of the Iraq policy like Senator McCain assert that the consequences of failure in Iraq would be too dire to tolerate. If the electorate is faced with a choice between someone who declares the war "lost" and someone who professes to have a plan to "win," no matter how implausible, they will choose the latter.

To prevail in the political arena Democrats must point out that every aspect of Bush policy concerning Iraq is erroneous, including the regime's insistence on viewing the crisis as a "win-lose" conflict. No one can win or lose in Iraq except the Iraqi people themselves, the only meaningful long term gauge of outcomes in Iraq is the stable political system that eventually emerges from the current instability. That system may be very different from what US leaders had hoped to establish in Iraq in 2003, but there is little chance that the groups fighting US forces in Iraq today will control or even have much of a hand in shaping that emergent government. In the end, no matter what US leaders do, it will not be the US that prevents groups like Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army from controlling Iraq, it will be the inherent dynamic of Iraqi society itself.

As long as US soldiers stay in Iraq, social forces in Iraq are not wholly free to negotiate a new political order. Once US soldiers depart, a negotiation will ensue that will determine the stable shape of the Iraqi state. This negotiation may be a very violent one, and it may produce a government that would be an unhappy one for the Iraqi people. The worst case scenario is probably a government much like that of Saddam Hussein, only led by a Shi'ite military officer who is slightly less anti-American than that latter despot. The US can not ultimately control whether such an outcome occurs. However, the likelihood of this worst-case scenario depends in part on the manner in which the US disengages from Iraq. What the US must do now is to disengage from Iraq in a manner that best facilitates the evolution of Iraqi politics along progressive lines. The recognition of this reality is not an admission of defeat, it is a resolution to do what is right both for the security of the US and the liberty and prosperity of the Iraqi people.

This is the case that the Democrats must take to the American people. It is a more complicated one to make, and it requires discussing the particulars of the Iraqi political situation with more detail and nuance than has ever been expressed by the Bush administration. To do less, however, is not only to paternalistically scorn the intellectual faculties of the American people, it will be a gross tactical miscalculation at the polls. Americans are concerned enough to want leadership in these troubled times, and they are smart enough to know real leadership when they see it. Mr. Reid's comments do not express real leadership. They follow the logic of Mr. Bush's rhetoric, and if Mr. Reid is going to follow the President the American people will take his example.

It is imperative that America acquire new leadership in the coming election. As critical as I may be of Mr. Reid and other Democratic leaders, I remain a committed partisan out of the conviction that the Democrats could only do better, on both foreign and domestic policy fronts, than the depths to which Republican leadership has brought us since the election of 2000. Because the stakes in the 2008 election are so high, I would implore Democratic leaders to genuinely differentiate themselves from the Rovian politics of the Bush era. Give the American people the benefit of the doubt, you will be surprised at the results.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Reading Signs in the Rubble in Iraq II

In February of last year the Golden Mosque of Samarra was destroyed. In the rubble of that blast could be seen the whole future history of the Iraq crisis until now. That attack was the single most successful tactical strike launched by any party in the Iraq conflict. It reshaped the entire political and military situation of Iraq and created repercussions that continue to reverberate powerfully today.

Last Thursday a truck bomb destroyed the monumental al-Sarafiya bridge across the Tigris River in Baghdad. On the same day a suicide bomber struck the cafeteria of the Iraqi Parliament, killing one person, the Sunni Parliamentarian Muhammad Awad. The Islamic State of Iraq, a group affiliated with Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for both attacks. In the same way that the rubble of the Golden Mosque portended much that has transpired in the last year, in the twisted girders of the al-Sarafiya bridge and the destruction of the Parliament cafeteria one can see the future of President Bush's Baghdad security plan. Neither attack will likely prove to have achieved the enduring tactical effect of the Samarra bombing, but taken together they evince systemic problems that will likely prove the security plan unworkable.

Defenders of the Bush plan have pointed to measurable successes that have been achieved in its early phases. Unfortunately, those successes have been mainly in the realm of reducing sectarian violence perpetrated by Shi'ite militias throughout the capital. Until now it has been statistically unclear whether or not the security plan and its US troop increase has been having a measurable impact upon the other grave security concern in Baghdad: bombing attacks by Sunni insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq. These latest bomb attacks cast serious doubt on any positive assessment of the effectiveness of the security plan in this latter realm.

Keeping Shi'ite militias off the streets is a task for which the mobility and firepower advantages of the US military provide effective leverage. Though the capability of the Shi'ite militias to "go to ground" would make it very difficult for US forces to completely neutralize them, any standing "hot war" conflict with the US would cost the militias dearly in manpower and material resources, as prior conflicts between the US and the Mahdi Army have shown. The commitment of new US forces to Baghdad has thus succeeded in making the militias "blink," and turn down the heat in their campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The challenge of protecting Baghdadis from suicide and car bombers, however, is one for which the technological dominance of the US military provides less advantage. The destructive combat power of US troops provides no deterrent or genuine protection against those who are already resolved to die. As the insurgent attacks themselves require little in the way of personnel or materials, ramping up the US troop presence in the capital does not really increase the strategic risks for the insurgency. Whether they succeeded by blind luck or careful planning, Thursday's attacks registered points that cannot be ignored by anyone observing or experiencing the security situation in Baghdad. The attack on the al-Sarafiya bridge demonstrated that the insurgency can target vital infrastructure and materially degrade the conditions necessary for effective policing of the capital. The attack on the Parliament showed that the insurgency can penetrate the areas where the strictest security measures have already been put in place, sowing doubt that the security plan will be able to make the ordinary citizens of greater Baghdad, where nothing even approaching such strict measures have yet to be implemented, any safer.

In defending against attacks like those on Parliament or the al-Sarafiya bridge no technology exists that can genuinely stand in place of observant eyes and ears on the ground, scanning for suspicious activity. On this principle it would be difficult to know how many troops would be "enough." In a city of six million people, how many soldiers would create enough vigilance to prevent attacks like those of last Thursday? One can choose whatever number one desires- double, triple, or quadruple the number of US soldiers called for in the current plan. It would be impossible to know the effectiveness of such numbers until they were implemented. Such speculation is in any case moot, as the recent extension of Iraq tours for US units from 12 to 15 months suggests that at the levels programmed into the current security plan the US military is already working at something close to its maximum threshold. Moreover, the security plan itself puts US forces into a paradoxical bind. In expending manpower and energy on keeping Shi'ite militias off the streets, the US is intensifying the difficulty of warding off the insurgency. Without the eyes and ears provided by militia forces, the burden placed upon US soldiers to stand sentinel against insurgent attacks becomes even greater.

Senator John McCain is quoted in today's New York Times as supporting Mr. Bush's security plan, declaring that he has no "Plan B" for how to ameliorate the crisis in Iraq. In real terms the security plan itself is in fact probably "Plan X" or "Plan Y" if one counts through all of the various shifts in tactics and policy attempted by the Bush regime since the invasion of 2003. What Thursday's attacks demonstrate is not merely the weaknesses of this latest plan, but that there should never have been a "Plan A"- the invasion of Iraq- in the first place.

As much as this is true, one must note that there is another sign to be read in the rubble of the Iraqi Parliament and the al-Sarafiya bridge. Though these attacks target an irredeemable vulnerability of Mr. Bush's security plan, they also evince the strategic and moral impoverishment of the insurgency. Any movement grounded so firmly in gratuitous destruction has little long-term chance of enduring success. One must keep in mind that the political forces which perpetrated these attacks only possess the traction that they do in Iraqi society because the US invasion opened up a space for them. The US can thus go a long way toward eroding that traction by constructively disengaging from Iraq. This is the "Plan B" that Mr. McCain fails to grasp, though in fairness there seem to be few leaders on either side of the partisan divide in the US who do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stop Chasing Victory; Start Making Sense in Iraq

The time for US leaders and citizens to cease imagining the Iraq crisis in terms of "winning" and "losing" has long past. The US faces no tangible enemy that it may defeat in Iraq. Conversely, virtually any potential "victory" for US foes involves such suffering and loss for the putative "victor" that to call such a triumph "Pyrrhic" would be a ludicrous understatement. The Coalition mission right now, to the extent that it has any coherent and viable motive principle, is not a military or even a political contest in any meaningful sense. US leaders must stop using the logic and rhetoric of competition and begin to conceptualize and articulate the Iraq mission as a nation-building enterprise. Only when the US and its allies realize that they need to help make Iraq, not war, will any path to resolution of this crisis emerge.

Though erroneous logic prevails in almost all corners of the US discourse on Iraq, any review of the reigning climate of confusion must begin with the Bush regime. Though Mr. Bush and his subordinates speak constantly of "victory," they give no specific definition of what such a state would entail. "A free and democratic Iraq" is too vague to serve as any standard. Iraq already has as democratic a government as it has ever enjoyed and freedom is running riot through the streets of its cities and towns, yet no one could call the current state of affairs "victory." The shape of Bush "victory" must be inferred from the negative spaces in Bush rhetoric.

Mr. Bush's refusal to state definitively that the US desires no permanent troop presence in Iraq would seem to indicate that such a permanent troop presence is precisely one of his fundamental criteria of "victory." Right now in order to remain in Iraq the US must tolerate the death of about 50-150 US soldiers per month. Mr. Bush seemingly intends to fight until this number reaches zero. Once Iraq is no longer hostile terrain for the US military "victory" will have been secured.

The first question one must ask of such a "victory" is how one reaches it. After four years of occupation Iraq is deadlier terrain for US soldiers today than it was in March of 2003. Undaunted, the US military has implemented a new "counterinsurgency" doctrine. Such a doctrine is no doubt quite useful in addressing the tactical problems faced day-to-day by US units operating in Iraq. But a "counterinsurgency" strategy will not win through to any enduring victory.

The task of fighting the insurgency in Iraq is bedevilled for US soldiers by the fact that the insurgency is not fighting the US, nor is it compelled to. The insurgents have no ultimate stake in whether or how long the US remains in Iraq, their one critical task is to prevent the success of the constitutional government in Baghdad. Some insurgent attacks on US soldiers are no doubt motivated by anti-American feeling, and all such attacks are useful to the insurgents as propaganda among certain Iraqi constituencies. But the insurgency is not bound to any timetable or specific "to do" list in its strategic orientation toward the US military. The insurgents may attack the US if and when they choose to, very little is at stake if the insurgents choose not to attack US soldiers on any given occasion or in any given period.

Herein lies a deeply intractable conundrum for the US military: how does one fight an opponent who is only incidentally interested in fighting oneself? The liabilities of this conflict are stacked almost exclusively on the side of the US, and US assets of firepower and mobility are trumped by insurgent advantages of local knowledge, time flexibility, and logistical proximity. Beyond this, the US military finds itself locked in the jaws of a Catch-22 that could spin Yossarian's head clear off his shoulders:

The US is fighting the insurgency;

the insurgency is fighting the government;

the continued US military presence undermines the government's legitimacy,


Every tactical move the US military makes against the insurgency, whether it inflicts damage upon the insurgents or not, aids the insurgency in its struggle against the government.

This situation would be bad enough, and would argue strongly against the practicability of a plan for the type of "victory" the Bush administration is chasing. This analysis only begins to enumerate the complexities faced by the US military in Iraq, however. If the insurgency was the Coalition's only worry "victory" might be imaginable in some impossibly rosy best-case scenario. But the insurgency is by far the easiest of the challenges confronting the US and its allies. Even as the insurgency fights to destroy the government the US helped establish, elements of that same government are mobilized to assault both the Coalition and the larger fabric of Iraqi civil society. Paramilitaries such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army cannot properly be called "insurgents," in that they are deeply implicated in the political process the Coalition is fighting to protect. Yet such Shi'ite militias rampage through major urban centers throughout central and southern Iraq, killing Sunni civilians and Coalition soldiers in a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing punctuated by occasional expressions of anti-foreign rage.

In essence, the US military has been tasked with protecting a government that does not yet exist even in embryo. Elections have been held and cabinet posts filled , but exquisitely convoluted battles rage over which institutions will hold real power in Iraq and who will be authorized to speak for those institutions. One small corner of this drama has been playing out in Diwaniyah (80 miles south of Baghdad), where US and Iraqi Army forces have been locked in battle with the Mahdi Army for three days, inciting anti-US protests among Shi'ites throughout southern Iraq. The proximal cause for this conflict was an assault by the Mahdi Army upon the municipal police headquarters of Diwaniyah. Was this attack motivated by anti-US feeling? Anti-Sunni hatred? None of the above. The Mahdi Army targeted the Diwaniyah police because they had been infiltrated and were controlled by the Badr Corps, a rival Shi'ite militia under the leadership of Ayatollah Aziz al-Hakim. The struggle in Diwaniyah is thus not ultimately over whether the US will remain in Iraq or even what role the Shi'ite clergy will enjoy in Iraq's new order. It is over what groups within the Shi'ite community will be authorized to represent the Shi'ite clergy in the political arena.

Convoluted as it undoubtedly is, the Diwaniyah incident embodies only one of myriad such volatile schisms which riddle every element of Iraqi society. Individually, either extinguishing the insurgency OR putting a stop to interethnic and interpartisan violence would most likely have proven beyond the capacity of the US and its allies to accomplish militarily. Together they present a completely insurmountable strategic task.

What can or should be done? Though the Bush strategy for "victory" is logically bereft, Mr. Bush's critics among the Democrats have come up with little better in the way of long-term proactive thinking. Democratic leaders like Senator Carl Levin talk of setting political "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet, but this is in effect an altered form of the same kind of "win-lose" game theory propounded by the Bush White House. In the same way the Bush White House cannot explain how deploying US troops can make Iraq safer for US troops, Mr. Levin cannot explain how a government that cannot defend itself meets "benchmarks" or what effect it will produce should it do so. Senator Hilary Clinton (among other Democratic leaders) has proposed ideas that combine all of the worst elements of the Bush strategy with none of its merits. She would withdraw most US troops from Iraq and leave a small contingent behind to fight Al Qaeda, thus completely subverting the chances of the nascent Iraqi government by treating Iraq as a geostrategic chessboard for the furtherance of US interests. Iraq would burn bright and hot as US troops engaged in a wild goose chase that could do little damage to Al Qaeda and bring even less security to the US.

The situation in Iraq is so complex that not only are positive steps difficult to conceive, developing criteria by which progress toward some goal might be measured is virtually impossible. If US casualties were the only significant gauge of "victory" or "defeat" some murky picture might be discernible. But such numbers exist alongside and are ultimately eclipsed by the 2,800+ Iraqis who have died per month over the last year of the conflict (according to UN figures). In relative terms this is the equivalent of more than 36,000 US citizens dying violently per month. Iraq is a society in cataclysmic and self-devouring collapse. All notions of US "victory" or "defeat" are rendered meaningless by this glaring and tragic fact, and all other goals are superseded by the urgent necessity of turning Iraq back toward sustainable stability.

The Coalition must abandon all notions of "victory" and focus exclusively on this latter goal of returning Iraq to stability. The strategic principles that should guide such a nation-building effort are:

1) Coalition casualties are a less important gauge of success than Iraqi civilian casualties. All policies should be focused on reducing the number of Iraqi deaths in the long term, even if it requires a short term rise in Coalition casualties.

2)All aspirations for a permanent US military presence in Iraq must be abandoned. The ultimate strategic goal of the US should be to disengage from Iraq in the manner that affords that nation its best chances for enduring stability.

3)Aspirations for a cease of hostilities against US forces must be abandoned. Not only will it be impossible for US forces to stay in Iraq, no exit will be possible free of continued lethal violence against US personnel. Iraq will remain provisionally lethal terrain for US soldiers until the day the last soldier departs, our best hope is for that departing soldier to leave behind an Iraqi government and military that can survive and ultimately restore order.

4)Aspirations to bring a total end to the insurgency and/or interethnic and interpartisan violence before the final departure of Coalition forces must be abandoned. Though the number of Iraqi civilian deaths should stand as the ultimate gauge of policy success in Iraq, the US and its allies must be prepared to see that number hold steady and perhaps even rise immediately after Coalition forces depart Iraq. The goal of nation-building should not be to force a Pax Americana on Iraqi society, but to help foster the creation of an Iraqi state authority that will, over time, be able to bring Iraqi society into order. Though the Coalition may take (and has taken) steps to help create such an authority, it may only fully establish itself after Coalition troops have fully withdrawn.

5)The US should embrace the goal of full autonomy for the Iraqi state and military, and undertake all risk and expense necessary to supply the Iraqi government and army with all the economic and military assets it will need to assert and defend its authority. The US should abandon self-serving interests such as privatization of Iraq's oil markets if it will aid the Iraqis in coming to a political settlement that will strengthen the foundations of government authority.

These are the basic principles of what I would term a strategy of nation-building rather than "victory." In several posts below I have outlined specific policies that would help advance such a strategy toward potential, provisional success.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Congress, Iran, and the Surge

Both the US House and Senate have passed spending bills that fully fund the Bush regime's Iraq deployment yet place provisional constraints on its continuing duration. The White House and its spin machine are in full lockhorn mode, broadcasting the message that if and when George W. Bush vetoes this legislation Congress will be guilty of starving the troops and leaving them bootless. The brazeness of this politicking would be impressive if the message was not so derivative. This is old wine in a new bottle- no matter how badly the Bush White House mismanages the Iraq policy it always comes back to somehow being Congress' fault.

In typical Bush regime fashion, the divisive belligerence of this latest offensive comes unalloyed with any empirical assessment of whether Congress' very mild conditions are in any way an impairment of current policy. An objective assessment would have to conclude that Congress' legislation can only enhance, not impair, the chances of the ongoing Baghdad security plan. The President's "surge" seems to have made some headway in reducing violence in the Iraqi capital. But there is no indication that any of what has been achieved depends on Baghdadis' belief that the surge will be permanent or enduring, quite the contrary.

We have seen no arrests of major militia leaders, no stockpiles of guns confiscated from Shi'ite paramilitaries. The security plan's access to neighborhoods like Sadr City was obviously brokered by a negotiated truce between the Shi'ite militias and US Centcom. Would that truce hold if groups like the Mahdi Army felt that US troops would be patrolling Sadr City indefinitely? This seems highly unlikely. One strongly suspects that one of the conditions which has made it possible for joint US-Iraqi Army teams to patrol through Sadr City in force and unmolested is the understanding that the "surge" is a temporary state of affairs.

This fact is underscored by the recent actions by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The seizing of British marines and the escalation of that hostage drama on the world's television screens would be puzzling given all of the saber-rattling occasioned by Iran's nuclear program. Such actions would seem to be tempting fate, unless Tehran felt that the precariousness of the Baghdad security plan allowed it to bargain from a position of strength. Why the marines were seized and what Tehran hopes to gain from this fiasco are questions about which I would not speculate. But Tehran seems to feel that the prevailing homeostasis in Baghdad precludes US military action against Iran for the moment, and in this they are probably correct. As soon as American bombs hit Iranian targets Baghdad would most likely become a much deadlier place for US forces, as their prevailing truce with Shi'ite militias collapsed.

The fact that Shi'ite militias view the US surge as temporary does not preclude it from achieving provisional gains. Groups like the Mahdi Army are no doubt lying low in the assumption that once the surge winds down they can go back to business as usual. US Centcom must know that this is the case, but are counting on the fact that any window in which the Iraqi military and police can be shown as taking even partial control over security throughout Baghdad will help normalize these institutions and solidify their authority, making a return to unrestrained militia mayhem impossible. Whatever the merits of this plan, it is all too likely that the longer it is sustained the more it will encounter a harsh margin of diminishing returns. If Iraqi military and police effectiveness is seen to depend too much for too long upon an increased US troop presence, the Iraqi people's faith in the security plan will erode and its long-term impact will be squandered.

Congress' moves to limit the duration of the surge and the US deployment more generally are thus in accord with the general climate of expectations that may facilitate its provisional success. If anything, Congress' restraints did not go far enough in curbing the White House's tactical profligacy. The security situation in Iraq will only improve for the long term if and when the US openly commits to a complete withrdrawal from Iraq and complete autonomy for the Iraqi government and military. Mr. Bush would be wise to sign Congress' legislation, if he does not the only one to blame for depriving the troops will be he himself. Let him veto the bill and let every Republican representative and senator campaign while trying to explain why he or she did not vote to override. Mr. Bush's faith that his current rhetoric will be politically effective embodies the same kind of miscalculation that cost the Republicans so dearly in the mid-term election.