Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Behind The Scenes - Reconstruction of The Najaf Battle

Cautious thumbs-up to the New York Times! WHATEVER IT IS, I'M AGAINST IT called my attention to the article written by Alex Berenson and John F. Burns (and presumably re-written by some nameless clueless desk editor).

Altough the text is at times wishy-washy and bending over backwards to use the weakest euphemisms, it does three things which NYT reporting of government actions rarely did: drawing up the appropiate historical context (even if incompletely), tracking actions to the players in the background, and exposing propaganda lies.

That is, the article starts by pointing out that this is Fallujah all over again, exposing the arrival of the Marines as the source of the troubles, outlining how they escalated initial squirmishes, with great political ignorance; and while Allawi (who, by the way, is "a former enforcer for Saddam Hussein's Baath Party", nice code word for 'assassin') and his government come away better than one would assume, Negroponte is exposed as the decision-maker who chose to push the escalation until an ultimate confrontation with Sadr.

Some key quotes:

...In past week, the interim government has twice halted major American-led attacks on Mr. Sadr's forces as they were about to begin...

...the latest fighting began when a Marine patrol drove directly past one of Mr. Sadr's houses in Najaf - violating an informal agreement that American units would stay away from Mr. Sadr's strongholds, treating them as part of an "exclusion zone" that was at the heart of the cease-fire in the city. [Next step missing even in this article: string of arrests of Sadr deputies]

Two days later, on Aug. 5, fighters in Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army staged a 2 a.m. attack on a police station in Najaf...

...Ambassador John D. Negroponte, the top American official in Iraq, "decided to pursue the case," one official said. One result was a domino effect, with the fighting in Najaf soon replicated in more than half a dozen cities and towns across southern Iraq...

...Marine commanders in Najaf acknowledge that they did little planning for the battle, but say they gambled that they could reach the walls of the Old City so fast that they would outrun the political firestorm sure to result...

...The ferocity of the rebel resistance surprised the marines, who had seen Saddam Hussein's army disintegrate last year as they marched north to Baghdad. "The ones we fought the other day are a hell of a lot more determined," Lt. Scott Cuomo said... [huh, where have you been in the last 18 months?]

...By early evening on Aug. 5, the battalion had sent out an urgent request for reinforcements .. when the request for help arrived .. American troops in the capital were under intense pressure themselves .. the 120-mile drive from Baghdad, through some of the most rebel-infested territory in Iraq, took two days...

...American forces faced immense pressure not to damage the Imam Ali Mosque .. soldiers fighting inside the graveyard needed permission to fire heavier weapons in the direction of the mosque... [apparently no one cared about heavier weapons damaging the just as holy graveyard, or civilian houses beside it]

...In Baghdad, commanders seemed curiously disconnected. [<-euphemism time] On Monday, Aug. 9, a senior military official told reporters that American forces had cut off Mr. Sadr's forces in the Old City and the cemetery from the rest of Najaf. But no cordon existed, and none would be set up until Thursday, when the second Army battalion arrived...

Recovering Republicans & Inhabitants of a Bubble

"I just saw 'Fahrenheit 9/11’ tonight with my husband and I must say that I am still numb. I feel so naive...almost like I have been living in a bubble!"

I haven't yet seen Fahrenheit 9/11 (it doesn't yet play in my hometown), but I earlier saw Bowling for Columbine. Based on that film, what struck me as most distinct about his filmmaking is something quite contrary to what the Moore-bashers on the right and "center" (read mainstream press) claim (in hopes people won't see it for themselves): that he portrays even the 'negative' characters in his films as humans.

His tool is simple: to get interviewed people in a situation where they can't carry on with acting their role, their role in the issue that is the topic of the documentary. The scary nutty weekend militiamen who turn out to be ordinary people with ordinary, boring jobs. The hyper-paranoid, ticky Nichols who keeps a gun under his pillow, who says "there are whackos out there". The tough sheriff who bursts into tears when asked about the drawing on his wall, drawn by an eight-year murderer. And evil Charlton Heston, who when walking away is revealed to be a fragile old man.

Moore's selection from his 6,000 letters a day that respond to his latest movie is in line with this - almost all were written by (now-ex-)Republicans making detailed 'confessions'. I encourage American leftists and anti-Bush rightists to read them all - finding sympathy for and understanding the mind of Bush voters could help more in an eventual effort to 'deconvert' one of them than thousand more facts.

The Democrats And Nader

As promised, I now reflect a little on the Democrats and Nader dimension of the US Elections 2004, and George Monbiot's advocation of a vote for Nader.

I'm not comfortable with this subject, because it is their Nader-bashing where the Democrats (both party leadership and sympathisants) let me down most.

Think of it in an utilitarian way. Your goal is supposed to be an increase in Kerry's votes. You seem to think you can get some from Nader. Now, Nader voters are voters who at present would not vote for your candidate despite all the Bush-bashing (which they most probably agree with). So why do you think they would be inclined to vote for your candidate after a lot of Nader-bashing, even if you succeed convincing them?

You should realise, with this method you are fighting to increase the numbers of non-voters, not of Kerry-voters - and with this campaign plus the legal dirty tricks like sabotaging caucuses with masses of subversive attendants or preventing the acceptance of pro-Nader-candidacy signatures on technicalities, you resemble Republicans more than I thought. (This is what I meant by letting me down most. In case I haven't made it clear earlier, I never thought Kerry is 'Bush Lite' or that the two parties are the same, my arguments were about different but in their effect equally serious faults, or about similar faults from different motives, or about less bad but unworkable policies that result in a Repub return.*)

As Dean rightly noticed but Kerry's DNC/DLC pushers still haven't learnt (and had many Democrat activists forget again), you should focus on getting non-voters. And if you still want Nader-voters too, the way to win them over is through policy promises, by making Kerry more likeable. I was pleased to note that the same point was made by Michael Moore in Boston [last paragraph in the transscript] - and Moore, tough no Kerry fan, is an Anything But Bush convert (remember he was even naive enough to be suckered into supporting that weasel Wesley Clark, Clintonite/DLC intimus and commander of the bomb-all-of-Serbia-instead-of-invading-Kosovo campaign).

On the final subject, I don't entirely agree with Monbiot. Monbiot rightly notes that there is a systemic failure in American democracy that continually leaves decent people with the choice between bad and worse. However, I go beyond him, and posit that this systemic failure also means that a third candidate like Nader can never win.

The American election system is a majority vote system, intended by the American 'Founding Fathers' to result in a Congress made up of individuals responsible to their voters, rather than one made up of parties whose members are loyal to the leadership, not voters.

However, theirs was a pipe dream: parties form all by themselves, based on shared opinions and interests, and because cooperation is a competitive advantage in crucial votes in Congress and in elections. And a majority voting system, unless smaller parties have strong local voting traditions like in Britain and Canada, automatically leads to two major parties: to maximise votes, the initially numerous parties form ever wider coalitions, and gradually dissolve in them - even in Canada, witness the last elections a few months ago, in which all three leftist national parties increased their voter share, but it was the now unified conservatives who increased their seats in Parliament. (Unfortunately, I can observe this same process live in my home country, which has a mixed but predominantly majority-based system.)

And once two large blocks remain - whose representatives, think about it, collected only about half or even less of all the votes cast, making "representative" kind of a meaningless word after factoring in voter participation too -, no upstart third competitor is likely to bust them. Their superior financial resources have their effects in the media as well as courtrooms. If that's not enough, the two bigs can cooperate to shape election and campaign finance laws favoring themselves. They can push through policies against their voters' will, and bury each others' corruption affairs without fear of a third party profiting from it: it is enough to remind their voter base that the other big party will win if votes on their 'side' will be "split".

That is, unlike Monbiot, I don't think Nader or some future progressive third candidate stands a chance of winning, even if progressive opinionmakers and news outlets support him. The system is against it. Only a large non-partisan civil movement or a rather unusually bold reform-minded Presidential candidate from one of the two big parties (who is either from outside the party elite or betrays it) could force through systemic change in the US political system. (It happened in other countries.) The usefulness of a Nader candidacy (or any third candidacy) could only be in what Monbiot noted only passingly: getting Democrats (or Republicans) to campaign for progressive (or whatever) votes.

* Some people seem to believe politics takes place in a bubble, where all that matters is whether your candidate is better in comparison to the others' - but politics is also connected to the real world, where once in office, a bad decision will blow into your face, even if it is less bad than what the opponent would have decided.

UPDATE 26/08: In response to James at Dead Men Left, I would like to make it clear that I strongly support the Nader candidacy, as a vehicle - presently, as the only vehicle - to get progressive issues into the public debate and force the US Democrats to fight for progressive votes (hence: move on policy issues); I regret not noticing that writing about the "only" "usefulness" two paragraphs up could be interpreted as belittling.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Growing Criticism of Kerry in The Guardian

In the last week or so, there have been four Comments critical of Kerry in the British leftist newspaper The Guardian. I of course welcome this as a sign that Europe won't harbor too many illusions about Kerry - illusions that would either hit us hard next year, or ones that allow Kerry to suck our leaders onto the wrong side on issues -, but also as a possibility that pressure to change policies might mount on Kerry before the elections (after all, he is a relatively recent convert to Beers' neoliberal imperialists).

As the, ehm, zeroeth among them, I mention naive Atlanticist Timothy Garton Ash's August 5 piece, which tough refraining from criticising Kerry and encouraging European participation in a future President Kerry's War on Terror, appends these conditions to the latter (displaying a bit more critical thinking from the author than usual):

If Europe has any wisdom at all, we should start thinking now about how we answer this Democratic challenge. Our answer should be, "Yes, so long as _ " Yes, so long as you rededicate yourself to a peace process between Israel and Palestine. So long as you recognise that Iraq has to be embedded into a much larger project of reform and development in the broader Middle East, which America and Europe can only achieve together. So long as you deliver on your promises to develop alternative energy technologies, address your own excessive carbon dioxide emissions, come back to the international treaties and institutions that the Bush administration abrogated and scorned.

We're all in the same boat, too, and we want to be. However, before skipper Kerry pulls the throttle, we have to agree not just the rules of engagement but who exactly the enemy is and what creek we're up.

The first truly critical article was from Simon Tisdall on August 10, titled "Kerry's big idea? There isn't one" and subtitled "Desperation shouldn't blind us to the faults of Bush's challenger. Relative to others, Tisdall's is a relatively kind treatment: He basically lists bad policies and divisive factors glossed over in campaign rhetoric, but then posits the election as "a choice between being bombed or bored to death".

William Pfaff goes further in his August 15 Comment titled, History is not on your side, Mr Kerry. Pfaff points out what I have in one of my first articles in this blog: that Kerry will inherit and "own" the Iraq war, like Johnson and then Nixon did Vietnam. In power politics, Pfaff can see until the 2008 elections, not just this years'. He warns about accepting "what everybody knows", in the analogy with Lyndon B. Johnson:

The murdered Kennedy's foreign policy advisers told him that if he didn't press on with the war, 'Asian communism' would conquer one non-Western state after another - dominos tumbling. So did practically everyone else in the Washington policy community. It was one of those things 'everybody knew'.

Johnson was a populist economic and racial-justice reformer. He knew nothing of south-east Asia. He knew that if he prosecuted the war, he 'would lose everything at home'. If he did not, he 'would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere'. Kerry expresses no such doubts. He apparently accepts what 'everyone knows' in Washington today, as in London, that 'failure in Iraq is not an option'.

This is true. Failure is no longer an option because it has already been assured by choices already made by the Bush administration. The questions that remain are failure's timing and the gravity of its consequences.

Later on, Pfaff lambasts Nixon for not following the example of someone Nixon admired (and an example Kerry should follow), Charles de Gaulle, who in the end had the nerve to pull out from Algeria, even against considerable opposition from public opinion, the military, and chauvinistic French terrorist organisations trying to assassinate him. (By the way, despite the film The Jackal, the latter is something pro-war people who like to rewrite history about which country did and which didn't put up against terrorism seem to forget about, along with the real Jackal - Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez -, the RAF, the nineties terror campaign by Algerian radicals including the plane hijackers who wanted to fly into the Eiffel Tower but the plane was stormed while refueling, and various separatists.)

And on more conventional wisdom that isn't wisdom at all:

The conventional wisdom in Washington and London is that political disorder and communal struggle would actually follow, leading to chaos, Iraq becoming 'a breeding ground for terrorism'. Once again, this is irrelevant. Iraq already is a breeding ground for terrorism and is nearing chaos under the occupation.

It is obvious that continued military occupation worsens the situation: it provokes resistance and disorder.
In any case, the ultimate responsibility for what happens in Iraq lies with the Iraqis, if they are let alone. This is what they have insistently been saying all along.

Third in the line of recent Kerry-critical articles comes from onetime pro-Iraq-war and anti-anti-American liberal turned harsh critic Peter Preston, whose subtitle says it all: "Kerry is playing into Bush's hands with his pseudo-military posturing". In the August 16 issue, Preston points out how a real confrontation with the opponents is marred by the rhetorical limitation imposed by this posturing, and how hypocritical it is, and even - how unconvincing. Excerpt:

And thus the me-too litany grows. Is America really embarked on a "war" against terror - as opposed to the pursuit of a particularly malign agglomeration of terrorists? It's a vital distinction, but Commander Kerry can't make it.

Don't we hear rather too much about service nobility and rather too little about Abu Ghraib? Kerry, the super vet, is hamstrung there, too. Come to think of it, where is Osama bin Laden - or even Mullah Omar? The commander can't go there either. He'd be talking military failure, not military triumph.

He could make hay with the Bush record day after day. Flip-flop? First flatten Najaf, then pick it up and dust it down. He could ridicule the Bush absurdity of bringing "democracy and freedom" to the Muslim world which doesn't appear to include Saudi Arabia.

He could laugh out loud when Bush calls Afghanistan a "rising democracy" - as opposed to the rising star of global heroin production.

At the end of the article, Preston touches on the next author's point, that Kerry doesn't seem to be able/willing to make real hard decisions:

A "new mood of cooperation" means finally proving less feeble, less flip-floppy than Bush has proved over Israel. It means telling General Sharon where he gets off and what to with his wall.

A statesman could begin to lay out that ground. An ordinary, articulate politician could begin to explain why change is necessary.

Kerry direly needs such change. It is why he is necessary. But not while he's giving that damned salute, not while the Mekong still flows straight through the purple heart of his campaign.

The final article in the line is from George Monbiot, in today's The Guardian. He is basically recommending a vote for Nader as a vote for systemic change, also blasting critics of Nader. (More on Nader in the next post.) On Kerry, he takes up where Preston ended:

Any president who seeks to change this system requires tremendous political courage. He needs to take on the corporations which have bought the elections, and challenge the newspapers and television stations which set the limits of political debate. Kerry, who demonstrated plenty of courage in Vietnam, has shown none whatsoever on the presidential stump.

He first comes to Kerry and Iraq. I observed on this blog already that a lot of anti-Bush bloggers try to see a meaning in Kerry's nuances, but all favorable explanations seem to fall apart with the next declaration from him or his advisers. The latest wishful thinking was that Kerry gave his vote for presidential authority to start the war to ensure there is enough pressure for UNMOVIC to be allowed back. But Monbiot caught something blowing this one to bits:

Ten days ago his national security adviser James Rubin told the Washington Post that if Kerry was president he would "in all probability" have launched a military attack against Iraq by now.

Again about the power to make decisions:

Kerry's ability to raise almost as much money as the Republicans is seen as a triumph for American democracy; but his corporate backers are funding him not because they believe in democracy, but because they believe that he will do what they want. And they are unlikely to be wrong. When Kerry gets his orders, he reports for duty.

The idea that this frightened, flinching man would oversee the necessary democratic revolution is preposterous.

As a final quote, from Monbiot's line of Bush-Kerry comparisons that are favorable for Kerry but not enough for recommending a vote for him, this blistering piece of sarcasm:

He wants to maintain massive levels of defence spending, but, despite his efforts to assure the media that he is as mad as Bush, he would probably be more reluctant to attack other nations.