Friday, August 31, 2007

BREAKING NEWS: John Warner retires, gets the date wrong

Senator John Warner (R–VA) announced around 3pm (Eastern) that he will not seek a sixth term in the Senate next November. Warner recently advocated beginning a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of 2007. Warner's history includes a stint as Secretary of the Navy and six years of marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. He is a rare pro-choice Republican, and has supported embryonic stem cell reesearch. He opposed Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, and voted against convicting President Clinton of perjury in the impeachment trial. He was one of the "Gang of 14" Senators who reached a compromise regarding judicial nominations, in order to stop the talk of the "nuclear option" of eliminating filibusters on those confirmation votes. He has spoken out against the Bush Administration's erosion of the rules against torture, because the weakening of those prohibitions will hurt U.S. troops in the future. He publicly disagreed with the recent statement by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that homosexuality is "immoral."

Call me nitpicky, but, in an odd bit of irony, he got his own retirement date wrong.

Warner made the announcement in Richmond, Virginia, this afternoon, saying:

My work and service to Virginia as a Senator — and I repeat, my work and service to Virginia as a Senator — will conclude upon the 6th of January, 2009, when I finish, as the Constitution of the United States, upon the first Tuesday of a new Congress, my career of then 30 years in the United States Senate. — John Warner, 2007-08-31, carried on MSNBC and other news outlets
Trouble is, that's not what the Constitution says. Per the 20th Amendment, his term expires at noon on Janury 3, 2009, a Saturday. Specifically,
[T]he terms of Senators and Representatives [shall end] at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin. — Amendment XX, Section 1, U.S. Constitution, ratified 1933
Maybe Robert Byrd can give Warner a vest-pocket copy of the Constitution as a retirement present.

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Inside Iraq: Dangerous Journalism

On today's Inside Iraq program on Al Jazeera English, host Jasim Azzawi discusses the dangers and difficulties of reporting from Iraq. More than 150 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003. Many more have been kidnapped, threatened, or unsubtly pressured. Foreign television crews have become a favorite target for various sectarian factions, leaving the job of reporting largely to anonymous Iraqis brave enough to risk their lives to get the story out. Even in the relatively safe Kurdish north of Iraq, one journalist was been sent to prison for 30 years for publishing stories critical of government officials. Although he was eventually commuted and then pardoned, the unmistakable message is, report here at your own peril.

Today's guests are John Burns, outgoing Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times; Ismael Zayer, editor of Al-Sabah Aljadeed (also Romanized as Assabah Aljadeed); and Joel Campagna, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mr. Burns himself was kidnapped by an armed sectarian group, although he was released after only 12 hours of captivity. Mr. Zayer, whose newspaper is based in Irbil, told of rocket and mortar attacks against the headquarters of his publication, resulting in the deaths of several employees.

Between government pressures, Shia militias, Sunni armed groups, and the general level of violence in a war zone, reporting from Iraq is incredibly dangerous. We owe a debt of gratitude to all the courageous men and women who put their lives — and in many cases, their families' lives — on the line in order to get the truth out to the world. Inside Iraq will re-air at 23:30 Friday; 04:30, 09:30, and 20:30 Saturday; and 01:30, 06:00, and 13:30 Sunday. All times are GMT; for other time zones, check the Al Jazeera English schedule page. [note: the pull-down menu for time zones is more reliable than the map]

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Same-sex Marriage in Iowa?

A county district court in Iowa has ruled that the state must allow same-sex couples to enter into civil marriages, and that the state law defining marriage as "one man and one woman" violates the state constitution. The case was brought in Polk County, which is to say the capital and largest city, Des Moines. About 1 in 9 Iowans lives in Polk County. County officials have vowed to fight the ruling, which will probably end up before the state supreme court.

The arguments advanced by opponents of same-sex marriage are crumbling. The claim that marriage as an institution is primarily about the children, is absurd. Every single marriage involves the adults who get married; not every marriage involves children. Therefore, marriage is primarily about the adults. Beyond that, of course, many same-sex couples have children, and they have no less need for the legal protections of marriage than opposite-sex parents. The argument that the state has an interest in promoting the "traditional" family structure is no more valid than the claim that the state has an interest in promoting the traditional Christian family structure. The cornerstone of liberty is that I get to live my life the way I see fit, unless and until I impinge upon someone else's liberty. No one can argue that a same-sex marriage, with or without children, in any way impinges on anyone else's liberty. Thousands of very real families have been traumatized by incidents that civil marriage would have protected them against; not one single "traditional" family has ever suffered in the least because of someone else's same-sex relationship.

The writing is on the wall, and the opponents of same-sex marriage know it. If you compare the attitudes of people under 30 to the attitudes of people over 50, the trend is unmistakable. It is only a matter of time before every single state and the federal government recognize gay marriages. That's why the "traditional values" folks are so hell-bent on writing bigotry into the state and federal constitutions, to make it more difficult for America to finally do the right thing.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Algerian Counterinsurgency

I downloaded the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual [13.6 MB PDF], and I've been leafing through it. As noted in the foreword, this manual is the first update in 20 years on the Army side and 25 years on the USMC side. I jumped ahead to the chapter on "Leadership and Ethics for Counterinsurgency," specifically the section on Detention and Interrogation. I was heartened to see unambiguous condemnations of torture and inhumane treatment — not only as illegal and immoral, but also as ineffective at obtaining "actionable intelligence." I was particularly glad to see a lesson drawn from the French experience with a Muslim insurgency in their colony of Algeria in the late 1950's and early 1960's, since the Bushies' refrain that "this is a whole new kind of war" is largely false. The United States is not the first nation ever to face terrorism, nor is Iraq the first insurgency pitting citizens of a Muslim nation against an occupying army from the West.

From section 7–44, page 7–9 of FM 3–24/MCWP 3–33.5 (15 December 2006):

Lose Moral Legitimacy, Lose the War

During the Algerian war of independence between 1954 and 1962, French leaders decided to permit torture against suspected insurgents. Though they were aware that it was against the law and morality of war, they argued that—
  • This was a new form of war and these rules did not apply.

  • The threat the enemy represented, communism, was a great evil that justified extraordinary means.

  • The application of torture against insurgents was measured and nongratuitous.
This official condoning of torture on the part of French Army leadership had several negative consequences. It empowered the moral legitimacy of the opposition, undermined the French moral legitimacy, and caused internal fragmentation among serving officers that led to an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1962. In the end, failure to comply with moral and legal restrictions against torture severely undermined French efforts and contributed to their loss despite several significant military victories. Illegal and immoral activities made the counterinsurgents extremely vulnerable to enemy propaganda inside Algeria among the Muslim population, as well as in the United Nations and the French media. These actions also degraded the ethical climate throughout the French Army. France eventually recognized Algerian independence in July 1963.
Any of that sound eerily familiar? It sounds like a conversation between Don Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and Dick Cheney. However, as the authors of the new field manual recognize, it is a recipe for failure. The Algerian War lasted for more than 7 years, resulting in the deaths of more than 140,000 Algerians and more than 18,000 French, with tens of thousands more wounded, and in the end France fled with its tail between its legs.

The use of torture by American personnel in Iraq, whether military or CIA or contractors or somebody else, whether explicitly ordered from on high or merely wink - wink - nudge - nudged into the shadow realm of official deniability, compromises the moral legitimacy of the U.S. occupation and therefore compromises its ability to stabilize Iraq before the impending U.S. withdrawal. The legalistic hair-splitting as to whether the conduct at Abu Ghraib was ordered by the top commanders, or merely inspired by the mad rush to justify "extraordinary interrogation techniques" and the abrogation of the Geneva Conventions, is meaningless to the people of Iraq and to the people around the world who sympathize more with the Iraqis than with the American occupiers. The United States tried to define "torture" out of existence by permitting what Jon Stewart calls "Freedom Tickling," so long as it didn't result in organ failure or similar near-fatal injury. We called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and insisted that the President could order a real-life "Jack Bauer" to get medieval on the terrorists' asses. And then we said that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples at the bottom of the chain of command.

My concern is that the people like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, et al., have so scorched the earth that it will take a generation for any kind of peace and stability to take root. We shouldn't have invaded Iraq in the first place, but if we did invade, we should have given a lot more thought to defending the moral high ground.

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Neocon chickenhawk says Geneva is the enemy

I was just watching Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. His guests for the "Hardball Debate" segment were Jon Soltz from and Frank Gaffney, who was Richard Perle's aide and then acting Assistant Secretary of Defense under Reagan — although his confirmation was blocked by the Senate. He was a pioneer in the neoconservative movement, a founding member of PNAC, and the founder of the Center for Security Policy, which advocates world peace through unbridled U.S. military power. After 9/11, he switched his focus from the Soviet Union — as late as 1990 he still saw it as the chief threat to U.S. security — and China to Islamofascist Terrorism. Reading through his biography on the Center's own web site, it is clear that he never served a single day in uniform, much less in combat. He made some jaw-dropping remarks about the role of the Geneva Conventions in the Global War on Terror™.

I'll link to the transcript and video clip if and when they become available, but for now, I'll pull out a couple of the most egregious statements. Chris Matthews introduced the segment with the question, "Who's to blame for the Abu Ghraib scandal, and was the Abu Ghraib scandal a result of the Bush Administration's policy?" Jon Soltz argued that the United States didn't have enough troops on the ground, and the troops had inadequate training, specifically in the area of detainee operations; he also argued that adherence to the Geneva Conventions is essential to our military's efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and that it serves as a "force multiplier" for U.S. troops by making adversaries more willing to consider surrender. Gaffney replied,

This notion that only by giving [people determined to destroy the United States] all of the protections of the Geneva Convention will we be conducting ourselves in a moral fashion, I think is ridiculous.
Yes, adhering to treaties — in particular treaties that have protected our troops for 143 years last week — is irrelevant to our moral authority in wartime. It gets worse, though: Gaffney argues that it isn't so much Abu Ghraib itself that was a problem, but rather the excessive publicity about Abu Ghraib, and particularly the effort to determine how far up the chain of command the problem ran.
The fact that we persist in trying to find somebody like that [Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, etc.] to blame for [Abu Ghraib], is an abomination.
I've saved the best for last, though. Giving Geneva Conventions protections to detainees in Iraq will undermine the Geneva Conventions — thereby endangering our troops! Say what??
Every one of those soldiers understands, I think, that if you start giving protections to people who don't wear uniforms, who hide themselves among civilian populations, who don't have chains of command — you are in effect actually making civilians more at risk. ... [M]ore to the point, it would be actually corrosive to our position vis-à-vis these terrorists, to give them the treatment that [Jon Soltz] apparently thinks they ought to have.
To sum it all up, not only do we not need to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, we need to not adhere.

A bit more about Gaffney, though, to give some perspective on his comments. He holds degrees in international studies from Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. He worked as an aide to Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (D–WA), who was in a sense the godfather of neoconservatism. He established the Center for Security Policy in 1988, and was a founding member of PNAC. He managed to piss off a sizable chunk of the neocons, though, with statements like this about President Bush:
He doesn't in fact seem to be a man of principle who's steadfastly pursuing what he thinks is the right course. He talks about it, but the policy doesn't track with the rhetoric, and that's what creates the incoherence that causes us problems around the world and at home. — Vanity Fair, January 2007, interview by David Rose
Back in 2003, Grover Norquist even went so far as to lump Gaffney into the same category as Osama bin Laden. And yet Tweety doesn't challenge his take on what "every one of those soldiers understands." I've never been in combat, either, but I'll take Jon Soltz's word over Frank Gaffney's any day.

[The first three blockquotes are from the 2007-08-29 broadcast of Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC; go here and select "No accountability for Abu Ghraib?"]

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gay Sex in Idaho History

U.S. Senator Larry Craig (R–ID) was arrested in June for an incident in a public men's room at the Minneapolis airport. In brief, the arresting officer says that Craig repeatedly peeked into the officer's stall before taking the adjacent stall. Craig tapped his foot on the floor several times and then pushed his foot under the divider to press against the officer's foot. He then repeatedly swiped his hand under the divider.

I'm a single gay man who has never had nor sought to have sex in a public restroom, but in 44 years I've certainly seen enough graffiti to know that Craig's behavior — he did not dispute the basic facts of the officer's account when he pled guilty — was an unmistakable sexual proposition. Craig's current explanation that he has an "unusually wide stance" isn't remotely close to convincing. The Idaho Statesman, Boise's major newspaper since 1864, has published details of allegations of Craig's homosexual conduct going back a quarter century. But you've probably heard about all this on television. What you might not have heard about is another gay sex scandal in Boise, Idaho, back in Larry Craig's childhood.

In the fall of 1955, when Larry Craig was 10, Boise was rocked by reports trumpeted by The Idaho Statesman of a sex ring supposedly recruiting hundreds of teenage boys to have sex with the pillars of the community — mostly married, churchgoing men. Three men were arrested on Halloween night, and a zealous police detective began tracing the connections between the men and various boys — ranging in age from 15 to 22 — whom they allegedly paid for sex. The newspaper portrayed the vice of homosexuality — never mind homosexual prostitution — as completely foreign to the fine, upstanding Christian community of Boise. "The Boys of Boise," as they became known, had discovered that they could loiter in the public men's room in a certain park downtown and find local businessmen on their lunch hour, willing to pay for the privilege of getting on their knees to give the boys oral sex. Several of the men accused eventually went to prison for years for "unspeakable unnatural acts" — an official legal designation at the time. Others fled Idaho, fled the United States, or even committed suicide.

The synergy between the police detective, the newspaper and the city council, created a genuine witch hunt, with the community expressing its determination to stamp out the homosexual menace from their midst — in the Statesman's words, "Crush the Monster." For the men involved, the mere suggestion of involvement was enough to ruin their careers and their families. For the boys — and I'd say it's a bit of a stretch to refer to a 22-year-old as a "boy" — the only course available was to play the victim of these predatory men, even though many of the young men got involved by their own conscious decision, knowing exactly what they were doing. Furthermore, the police investigation expanded beyond allegations of teenage and twentysomething prostitutes into private consensual sex between adults. The allegations even involved the son of a city councilman, although his name was not publicized.

There's even more to the history of gay sex scandals in Boise. Back in 1920, there were reports of gay sex in the men's room at the trolley station, so workers drilled a hole in the roof. They then caught two men in the act: a local laborer and the assistant secretary of the county Republican Party. So, if the reports in The Idaho Statesman are true, Larry Craig isn't by any means the first closeted Idaho Republican politician. There's also Jim West, the Republican former mayor of Spokane (not in Idaho, strictly speaking, but only 20 miles from the state line), who campaigned on a rabidly anti-gay platform and then masturbated during an online gay web chat while sitting in his office. You can't protect your own closet by attacking others'.

A dozen years after the scandal of the fall of 1955, CBS News said, "The people of Boise tried to 'stamp out' homosexuality. They discovered it couldn't be done. In the learning process, everybody suffered." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Bush and Gonzales

Embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation this morning, finally succumbing to the reality that he has lost the trust of the Congress, lost the trust of the Justice Department, and lost the trust of the American people. President Bush is very nearly the only person who still thought Gonzales was doing a heckuva job. Bush had some remarks about Gonzales' departure, which we will misquote below the fold.

Bush reluctantly accepted the resignation of his "really, really close friend," saying that Gonzales' "muddy name was dragged through the water, but it still wouldn't come clean." The attorney general "endured far better treatment than he deserved," but the matter "created harmful distraction at the Justice Department." It is, in the words of the President, "sad that we live in a time when an untalented and dishonorable person is impeded from impeding important work," which is especially sad for an untalented and dishonorable President. Gonzales himself described public service as "honorable and noble," although his own performance was dishonorable and venal.

The legacy Gonzales leaves behind will take years to erase, even once competent, honorable, law-abiding people come to the helm at Justice. Gonzales has worked tirelessly to curtail the Constitutional rights of the American people, to diminish America's reputation for fairness and justice on the world stage, and to tarnish one of the great institutions of our government. Warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, torture, and politicized justice — not to mention lying to Congress about all of the above — will be the things for which Alberto Gonzales is remembered, far more than for being the first Latino A.G.

The question is, what now? In a just world, Alberto Gonzales would return home unable to get a job fighting parking tickets, much less doing any real legal work. Of course, since we don't live in a just world, Gonzales will undoubtedly trot off to a cushy job at some think tank, clipping his toenails for a six-figure salary, hoping to return as a lobbyist once everyone has forgotten his disgrace — in other words, around the time that global terrorism completely ceases. In the mean time, though, who will replace Gonzales at Justice?

The interim replacement is Solicitor General Paul Clement, and there have been rumors that Michael Chertoff (head of Homeland Insecurity, boss of the head of FEMA, who did just as much of a heckuva job after Katrina as Brownie did) might be tapped, but I would suggest that neither person is likely to be nominated as full-time Attorney General, for the simple reason that Bush would then have to appoint someone to fill that vacancy. He wasn't looking forward to one confirmation fight; he certainly won't want two. The obvious logical choice is John Yoo, an obscure Berkeley law professor who is the architect of much of the legal theory behind the Bush Administration — specifically the idea that, paraphrasing rather than misquoting Yoo, "No treaty, no Act of Congress, not even the Constitution itself, can limit the President's power as Commander in Chief." In other words, to quote Nixon, "if the President does it, it's legal." John Yoo said — no joke — that the President has the power to order the torture of children if that is what he alone deems necessary to protect the nation.

Of course, if John Yoo is nominated for Attorney General, we should expect to see scenes much like the reaction to President Musharraf's attempt to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. In other words, you'll have lawyers rioting in the streets. Yoo's odds of being confirmed by the Senate are worse than the odds that Osama bin Laden will pledge undying loyalty to Israel. That means that the only way Yoo becomes Attorney General is through a recess appointment. The President has the power to make a temporary appointment to a position that normally requires Senate confirmation, but at this late stage in Bush's term, that "temporary" appointment would last for the remaining 511 days before we get a new President.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Olbermann special on NBC

Some of my readers have asked what TV shows are out there for folks who don't have cable. So much of the stuff I write about is from MSNBC, Comedy Central, HBO, Al Jazeera English, and other channels that don't offer conventional broadcast signals. This weekend, many of you will get the opportunity to experience MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, a news anchor I have compared to Edward R. Murrow, the man who is single-handedly responsible for my decision to change cable companies. (The old cable didn't include MSNBC, so I switched.) He will be doing a special Sunday broadcast of his Countdown news program on NBC instead of MSNBC. It will air at 7pm Eastern, 6pm Central, 4pm Pacific, leading into the football game. The online TV schedule web sites I've checked still show the normal Sunday lineup, national news at 7:00 and local at 7:30, but the NBC/MSNBC web sites assure me that Keith will be on. I don't know if there will be a "Special Comment" segment, but we can hope.

Of course, that doesn't help those of you here in San Francisco who don't have cable, since San Francisco has no NBC affiliate. Oh, well; can't be helped.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Counterinsurgency on The Daily Show

Tonight's Daily Show with Jon Stewart — the last new show for two weeks! — featured a soldier who helped draft a new counterinsurgency manual for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. As he notes in the interview, the manual was needed for some time before it was written, but it appears to have been written with a sense of long-term perspective that has been so woefully lacking from our military, and especially from our civilian, leaders. There were people, including within the military and the State Department, who foresaw that the Bush Administration's policies, most especially disbanding the police and the army, were a recipe for an instant insurgency, "just add water sand!" Jon Stewart's interview with Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl, U.S. Army, appears below the fold, with both a video link and a transcript. Update: link added to PDF of the manual itself.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, original airdate 2007-08-23, ©2007 Comedy Central.
Jon Stewart: Welcome back. My guest tonight, he was a military assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and currently commands the 1st Battalion, 34th Armor, at Fort Riley, Kansas. He was also on the writing team for The Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Please welcome to the program Lt. Col. John Nagl. [see also]

Welcome to the show, and thank you so much for joining us.

LtCol John Nagl, US Army: Good to be here.

Stewart: You were involved in the writing of — I guess this is The Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and this is the manual that yourself and other people — General Petraeus also put together?

Nagl: Gen. Petraeus was the lead, sort of the guiding force behind it, along with Lt. Gen. Jim Maddis of the United States Marine Corps, who was my boss in al-Anbar in 2004; they call him "Mad Dog," a fighting general, but also a thinking general. Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Maddis came together, the Army and Marine Corps, with a team of writers, produced the strategy, really, that Gen. Petraeus is implementing in Iraq now.

Stewart: When was this written?

Nagl: We started in December 2005 and published it in 2006 — published it about six months ago, December 2006.

Stewart: Incredibly fast. That's quick.

Nagl: Very fast for an Army field manual; the process usually takes a couple of years. Not fast enough. We're fighting a very adaptive enemy who's learning, in a war that's evolving, and we have to out-think this enemy; we can't just outfight 'em.

Stewart: Was there another counterinsurgency manual that was no longer operative, or was there not one?

Nagl: We last had a counter-guerrilla manual in 1987, but as an army, we really avoided counterinsurgency in the wake of Vietnam because we didn't want to fight that kind of war again. Unfortunately, the enemy has a vote, and our very conventional superiority in war-fighting is driving our enemies to fight us as insurgents and as guerrillas, rather than in the kind of war we're most prepared to fight, which is conventional tank-on-tank kind of fighting.

Stewart: This must be invaluable to the guys in the field, but it also must be coming at them from a different perspective, in that it changes the rules of the game. They're basically being turned from a fighting force into almost a municipal force.

Nagl: You still have to be able to do the fighting. A friend of mine, when he found out I was writing this, Special Forces officer, wrote to me from Iraq, and said, "Remember, Nagl: counterinsurgency is not just thinking man's warfare, it's the graduate level of war," because you have to be able to do the war-fighting stuff — and when I was in al-Anbar, I called in artillery strikes and air strikes, and did the war-fighting stuff — but I also spent a lot of time meeting with local political leaders, establishing a local government, working on economic development — so, you really have to span the whole spectrum of human behavior. We had cultural anthropologists help us with the book, economists, information operations specialists — so, there's a — it's a very difficult kind of war, it's a thinking person's war, and it's a kind of war we're learning and adapting and getting better at fighting during the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stewart: How difficult is it for the guys in the field to have rules of engagement change? Because you make the point in the book, there's two ways of fighting an insurgency. There's the "destroy the village to save the village," and then there's the "protect at all costs the civilians," and that's the method you guys have taken here, to some criticism, I guess, within the military community or elsewhere. But, how do you make that decision, and then, for the guys — because that does change their rules of engagement, and I imagine when you're working in a town where you don't know the language, you don't know the customs, a guy that's waving at you as you drive by this way is shooting a mortar at you as you come back this way — you know, you might not want to think, Well, OK, I should ring his bell and find out why he's mad at me. That must be hard for those guys to adjust.

Nagl: If I could sum up the book in just a few words, it would be: "Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill." So, one of the — [audience groans]

Stewart: Yeah, I mean, no, it's — listen —

Nagl: It's a war book —

Stewart: You're absolutely right.

Nagl: It's a good rule for here, too.

Stewart: But it is — Yes, even on the subway. It is — I mean, that is the summation of how difficult it is for these guys on the ground, which is: Get their trust, but know that you may have to also do what an army has to do. Who gives the order to create this type of document? Does it come from the civilian leadership, or does it come from the military leadership?

Nagl: This was a military-originated project. The Army recognized that it wasn't current in this kind of war, that it needed to think through how to fight and win these kind of wars, and Gen. Petraeus — really, a remarkable man, PhD from Princeton, as well as a great war-fighter — assembled this team. [It] took a lot of courage, he had Human Rights Watch help draft an Army counterinsurgency manual, the Carr Center for Human Rights [Policy] at Harvard University helped us think through how to fight this kind of war, because we absolutely want to kill or capture our enemy, every chance we get. Absolutely. But when we kill or capture the wrong people, we can create more insurgents, and that's just pushin' the rock further up the hill, which you don't want to do. So you're tryin' to find that balance, and balance the right amount of force, the minimum amount of force necessary to accomplish the military objectives.

Stewart: Obviously, you know, it's not appropriate to get into political questions, but —

Nagl: Do you do that? Do you talk about that on this show?

Stewart: I do talk about it occasionally. But it seems that everything we've heard from the administration runs slightly counter, that there's a certain sense that the civilian leadership is, you know, "We gotta double Guantánamo, we gotta be much tougher," or they weren't really expecting an insurgency, so they didn't plan for that type of thing. Has that put additional stress on the guys? Are there mixed messages coming to them?

Nagl: They are, umm — [long pause]

Stewart: By the way, tell me if that's inappropriate to even ask.

Nagl: No, no, not at all. The soldiers in the field, I think, are getting a very clear message from their military leaders, from Gen. Petraeus, from Gen. Maddis, from the commanders in the field, which is: Use the minimum amount of force necessary, accomplish the objectives, always being cognizant of the fact that the person you're fighting with today (as with the Sunni tribes I was fighing in al-Anbar in 2004) may turn out to be your allies, several years later. And I like to think that some of the reasons for what's called the Sunni Awakening in al-Anbar is because of the way we treated some of the Sunni tribes — some of whose members were fighting us —

Stewart: You're finding that the Sunnis are now going after some of the al Qaeda —

Nagl: The Sunnis are now going after al Qaeda, in part because of the professional way we tried to treat them.

Stewart: How much of that insurgency is al Qaeda, how much Sunni, how much — is it —

Nagl: It's classified, Jon. I could tell you, but —

Stewart: No, no, no. You gotta tell me.

Nagl: No, no. I've gotta tell you?

Stewart: Yeah.

Nagl: Umm, 7.3 percent.

Stewart: Are you kidding?

Nagl: Yes.

Stewart: You know, you really don't expect a sense of humor coming out of you, I gotta say, and when you get it, it's very effective. Well, it's fascinating, it's incredibly complicated and complete, and I admire the fact that what you guys do is the best you can to take care of your people in the field, and that's Job One, and that appears to be unanimous within the ranks, and I think unanimous within the country, as well, and it's a pleasure to have you on the show.

Nagl: It's an honor to be here, Jon.

Stewart: Thank you, sir. The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is on the bookshelves, as well; Lt. Col. John Nagl.
If this manual is half as good as it sounds, I'm certainly glad that the military has it and is using it, but I can't help thinking how many Iraqi and American lives could have been saved if we had had a sensible approach to the early days of the insurgency, or better yet, if we had given some serious thought to preventing the insurgency. I'm still digesting No End in Sight, but one unmistakable point stands out from all the accounts of the early days of the occupation of Iraq: Bush and Rumsfeld and the neocons in Washington decided — against the better judgment of both military and diplomatic experts on the ground in Baghdad — to completely disband the Iraqi police and military. We didn't send enough troops to take on everyday police functions for Baghdad, much less for the whole country. We cut loose tens of thousands of trained soldiers and policemen with no jobs, no money, no hope, but lots and lots and lots of weapons — and were surprised when those people formed the core of an insurgency! We made it clear that we cared about the oil ministry building, but not about the citizens of Iraq, nor about their homes, their livelihoods, or their priceless and irreplaceable cultural heritage.

I am still concerned, though, that this new approach to counterinsurgency comes far too late. Rumsfeld, Bush, et al., created the insurgency, recruited for it, nurtured it, assured it of access to enormous stockpiles of small arms and explosives, and did a lot to alienate the people of Iraq along the way. We tore down the existing structure of government, when the obvious choice was to carefully prune the hardcore Ba'athist elements while leaving most of the institutional framework intact. Now we are faced with the task of quelling the insurgency we fostered, with too little support from Iraqi institutions that have not yet been rebuilt, and with an Iraqi government that has — so far, at least — been unable to coalesce the factions into a unified nation-state capable of providing for its people and defending its streets. Even with a much clearer picture of the path forward, the effort will fail unless the Iraqis can make dramatic political progress in the very near future, because the American people will not make an open-ended commitment to Iraq. The Iraqi government — or its successor, if this government fails — must make major strides towards ending its reliance on American military force. The United States will withdraw from Iraq, and we will begin that withdrawal soon. The question is whether the Iraqi and American leaders will take steps to contain the chaos, or whether they will close their eyes and try to simply wish it away.

Update: The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is available for download as a 14 MB PDF file. Thanks to Isaac for the tip.

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The Perfect vs. the Good

My mother is fond of saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." It's another way of expressing the point of Dick Feller's classic song "Makin' the Best of a Bad Situation." Or to put it in the terms of the Rolling Stones, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need." I'm sure there's probably some big music-video interlude in High School Musical around the truth that you don't always get your first choice; sometimes you have to work pretty hard just to get your second or third choice. Tonight, as I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, and having recently seen No End in sight, I was thinking about the application of those maxims to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In Iraq, to paraphrase Mom's proverb, I would say:

The pursuit of phantom military victory is the enemy of maximizing what little silver lining can still be salvaged.
The Republicans jump up and down about how the Democrats supposedly have no plan for dealing with the consequences of withdrawing, or even just reducing, our military forces from Iraq. In fact, the Republicans have neither a plan to deal with the consequences of withdrawing nor a plan to deal with the consequences of staying.

I've been having an interesting exchange with a couple of Bush's hardcore Koolaid-drinkers, over on the New York Times web site. I suggested that Bush and the neocons were to be faulted for trying to link Saddam and al Qaeda, or Iraq and 9/11, and that Bush has made the world less safe — hardly a great secret. They lapsed into knee-jerk indignation, but I think I made the case pretty well with this comeback (pending moderator approval on
Margot Nixon, have you actually watched the ad at the center of this discussion? The amputee soldier looks into the camera and says
Congress was right to vote to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. I re-enlisted after 9/11 because I don't want my sons to see what I saw. I want them to be free and safe. I know what I lost. I also know that if we pull out now, everything I've given and sacrificed will mean nothing. They attacked us. And they will again. They won't stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It's no time to quit; it's no time for politics.
How, exactly, is that anything other than saying that Iraq attacked us? And don't go disavowing any connection with the administration, either; the person behind these ads is Bush's former press secretary, so saying that he's off the reservation just won't fly.

Various people have asked where the concrete evidence is that we are less safe. It's called the National Intelligence Estimate. Al Qaeda has used Iraq as a recruiting and training tool; we already know that. But now we know that al Qaeda is stronger than at any time since 9/12, which means it is stronger than it was on 3/20/03. It also means that al Qaeda is stronger today than it would be if we had not invaded Iraq. If your enemy who is sworn to your complete destruction is stronger, then you are less safe; it's not exactly rocket science, and it's the farthest thing from "emotion-driven conjecture." Furthermore, we have alienated our friends and allies, in countless ways, from "Bring 'em on" to Abu Ghraib, and that also makes us less safe, because we need friends who will go to the mat to help us stop the terrorists. In Iraq, we've been making far more enemies than friends.

By the way, the statement that "no attacks on American embassies in the world, no attacks inside of this nation, and no attacks on our military installations outside of Iraq" as a justification that we are somehow safer because we've had George W. Bush at the helm, ignores the crucial fact that there have been serious attacks on our allies outside of Iraq. Madrid and London come right to mind, and there have been others. Al Qaeda hasn't attacked us on American soil because we are doing more damage to our own security than they ever could hope to achieve. Sure, they're going to try to attack us on U.S. soil when we leave Iraq, but that's true whether it's a week from now or a decade from now.

Are we less safe because Saddam is dead? No, of course not. But you can't ask that question in isolation: we are OBVIOUSLY less safe because we took him out. In other words, the danger we placed our nation in by taking out Saddam was greater than the danger we faced by leaving him there. Dick Cheney himself made that point in 1994, in the video that's been making all the rounds the last few days. In fact, the danger was greater for both the U.S. people and the Iraqi people.

In justifying things like curtailing habeas corpus and allowing warrantless surveillance of American citizens within the United States with little if any court oversight, neoconservatives are fond of saying things like, "The Constitution isn't a suicide pact!" Why should you care about government snoops, unless you have something to hide? Are you a terrorist, or just an unpatriotic criminal? In other words, we have to sacrifice some of the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution in order to survive this existential threat to our very nationhood. It's less of a bumper-sticker slogan, but in practice it is the same statement.

On the other hand, neocons say that, never mind the thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who have died, and the millions of Iraqis who have been driven into exile, and the millions whose homes have been destroyed or whose livelihoods are gone, the Iraqi people are better off because they are free from the terrible dictator Saddam Hussein. It just ain't that simple. The life of the average Iraqi citizen is much more dangerous now than it was in 2002. Even of the ones who have stayed, millions have lost much or all of their access to electricity, potable water, and sewers. Can you really believe that the Iraqi people are better off with Saddam replaced by sectarian bloodletting? Saddam didn't torture or kill people nearly as fast as the civil war that replaced him.

Other commenters have gotten all in a huff because I stated the truth that the administration and its allies have consistently worked to foster the belief that Iraq was involved in 9/11. Given the overwhelming proof, just in the person of Dick Cheney, the denials would be hilarious if the delusion weren't so dangerous. I've also demolished the fatuous claim that the world is somehow better off because the United States invaded and occupied Iraq.

The accusation that I am somehow engaging in a strawman argument is an effort to deflect attention from the strawman arguments at the heart of the neocon case. The opponents of Bush's policies have never advocated a precipitous withdrawal, but Bush and his friends insist on trying to put those words in their mouths. Nor has anyone argued that Saddam Hussein was a good guy who deserved to stay in power; few would even argue that he deserved to live. Nor has anyone ever said that we should sit back and wait to be attacked. Nor has anyone ever said that everything will be rainbows and candy when we pull out of Iraq — although I do recall someone predicting that we would be greeted as liberators, and that we would be there only for a matter of weeks, probably much less than six months.

If you have any faith whatsoever in the competence of the Bush team ever to take a successful approach to Iraq, then you clearly haven't seen the new film No End in Sight. The Bush team ignored the expertise of the diplomats and military experts who knew Iraq best. L. Paul Bremer, under orders from the White House, disbanded the Iraqi military and police, thereby creating an insurgency, with men, a command structure, and plenty of ordnance. Jay Garner knew better, and the military experts were in agreement that it was a bad idea, but Bremer insisted that his orders left him no flexibility. Was it a good strategy to turn loose hundreds of thousands of men with military and/or police training, weapons up the wazoo, a pink slip, and $50 severance pay? Who could ever have predicted that those people — especially the ones who had no great love of Saddam, but who did what they had to do to provide for their families — would be angry about being left with no paycheck? How about "anyone who gave it a moment's thought"? That goes for the Iraqi military, the police, and to a lesser extent the bureaucrats.

On top of that, was it a good strategy to disband the military and the police, when we had already demonstrated that we wouldn't lift a finger to stop rampant looting and worse? We just stood by, shrugged our shoulders, and said, "Stuff happens." Did that decision endear us to the average Iraqi citizen? The lesson of Vietnam is that we can't win the war if the people whose country we're supposedly fighting for, aren't wholeheartedly on our side. We can't win their civil war.
I'm not saying that we should have happily left Saddam in power, but I am saying that the way we took him out was a "cure" even worse than the "disease," and the "treatments" since then have mostly been as effective as arsenic and cyanide.

Programming note: I'm very excited by Thursday night's Daily Show and Colbert Report, and eagerly anticipating Friday's Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English (an unbiased view of the progress of the surge and the status of Nouri al-Maliki's government) and Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. More on those after a night's sleep....

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Uh-oh! Grenada knows we're coming!

On last night's Daily Show, Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama let slip his future administration's sooper-seekrit plan for winning the War on Terror: invade Grenada, or if you want it to rhyme better, invade-a Grenada. (gruh-NAD-duh sounds too much like gonads, dude! It's gruh-NAY-duh.) Sadly, moose hips kink slips, or something like that. Trouble is, someone on the Caribbean island of Grenada read about it right here in The Third Path, so now they know we're coming! We've lost the element of surprise, so vital in military operations. Of course, we could always just invade Trinidad instead; it's practically next door. If we do it during Spring Break and disguise the land mines as beer kegs, they'll hardly even notice.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Obama on the Daily Show

On Wednesday's Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Senator Barack Obama joined the parade of Presidential candidates stopping by for an interview. I got to see Senator Obama up close and personal at the YearlyKos Convention a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell you that the enthusiasm he generates is palpable. I was glad tonight that he addressed some of the "gaffes" he has supposedly made on foreign policy issues. The video and transcript are below the fold.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, original air date 2007-08-22, ©2007 Comedy Central
Jon Stewart: Welcome back. My guest tonight, a Democratic Senator from Illinois, he is also running for President. Please welcome back to the show, Senator Barack Obama. Senator!

some audience members: [in unison] You rock, Barack!

Jon: "You rock, Barack!"? Senator, thanks for joining us.

Senator Barack Obama: Jon, it is good to be here.

Jon: The effect you have on a crowd, it's unusual for a politician. You do have — there's a certain inspirational quality to you. My question is, is that really something America is gonna go for?

Obama: Well, we're gonna find out! We're gonna find out. You know, we've been just having a wonderful time travelling all across the country, and we've been getting these enormous crowds — 20,000 people in Atlanta; 20,000 people in Austin, Texas; 10,000 people in Iowa City — and we're especially seeing a lot of young people, and that is one of the things that's most exciting about the campaign, is folks who haven't seen a whole lot of inspiration in politics most of their lives, suddenly taking this seriously.

Jon: And comin' out to see you. And do you have, if I may, kegs? 'Cause that also can draw them.

Obama: We don't like to divulge our secrets.

Jon: I think that's wise. You've been taking — this is amazing — I just pulled some quick clips from the paper, because the process that we have in which we elect our officials is so insane. I was on the web yesterday; your wife, I guess, had been giving a speech in Iowa in which she mentioned that she feels that she wanted to take care of her own household. She felt like, you gotta be able to take care of your own house to really feel like you can take care of the White House. I turned on Drudge; it said, "Obama's Wife Slams Hillary." You mentioned something about going after al Qaeda in Pakistan; this says, "Obama Stumbles and Bumbles on al Qaeda Question," "Bam Bombs Himself in New Gaffe," this is my favorite: "Angry Obama the pothead is not how they remember him on Hawaii." Has the insanity of this process sunk in on you yet?

Obama: You know, every day it reveals itself in new ways, and, you know, I think that's part of what people are looking at our campaign to see, is just some normalcy and some common sense. You know, I was mentioning that we were preparing for the debate, and we had an 8:00 in the morning debate in Iowa —

Jon: This was like the 27th debate, for real.

Obama: — and it's always a shock to the system when, Sunday morning, you wake up and you're face-to-face with Mike Gravel. (Yes.) So, we're preparing, and one of my staff said, "The thing you gotta understand is, this isn't on the level." And I think that really strikes to what people are frustrated with in politics is that so much of what we talk about in politics, so much of what we say — it's not true, people know it's not true, all the insiders understand that we're just game-playing, and in the mean time you've got these hugely serious problems which are true.

Jon: Do you feel like you're stuck in a narrative now? And the narrative is, Hillary Clinton is unlikable but knows what she's doing, Obama is inexperienced but brings change, and that narrative, no matter what you do, because it's easily categorized, the media or everyone else will just slip whatever happens into those two narratives?

Obama: That's what's happening right now; they will probably find something new later to talk about. You know, the whole —

Jon: Could you tell us what that will be?

Obama: We don't know yet. Whatever sells papers.

Jon: Whatever sells papers.

Obama: Whatever sells papers.

Jon: Does your campaign — do you find yourself falling into promoting those narratives as well? Is it hard, as a campaigner, to not see yourself then as a product as well and —

Obama: Well, what happened: let's take the example of experience. We try to remind people, nobody had a longer résumé than Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and that hasn't worked out so well. So what we try to do is break down these narratives and get to the heart of the question. So, when people talk about experience, what they really want to know is, does he have good judgment? And you hope that if somebody has more experience, it gives them better judgment. Of course, everybody knows a lot of 50- and 60- and 70-year-olds that don't have good judgment; they keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. So what we want to do is start talking about judgment, how do we get things done, what's common sense. What's been interesting, for example, on not using nuclear weapons to bomb an al Qaeda camp, for example. Iniitally, everybody said, "Oh, that's a gaffe," and then suddenly reporters started talking to military experts who said, "Well, why would you even consider using nuclear weapons?" Some of the press scratch their head and say, "hmm."

Jon: It turns it around.

Obama: It turns it around. And that's how we have to continually respond, is to just push against the conventional wisdom, push against the habits of thought. It's the same way that we got into Iraq was, nobody is willing to ask tough questions, and there is this —

Jon: And challenged conventional wisdom.

Obama: — and challenged conventional wisdom. That's what we've gotta do.

Jon: Well, that's what's great about it is, the way they've responded is, "We agree with Barack on those things, we just didn't know you were allowed to say it publicly." That's been the best part about it. We'll take a commercial break and be right back with Senator Barack Obama. [commercial break]

Welcome back! We're here with Senator Barack Obama. With the experience thing, have you thoguht about running a smaller country first?

Obama: No, you know, what I did think about, though, was invading a smaller country.

Jon: Great way to get some popularity.

Obama: Grenada (gruh-NAD-duh), or Grenada (gruh-NAY-duh), or —

Jon: Well, that's a gaffe; I don't know how that's gonna show up in the headlines tomorrow. That's a big one. Now listen, what do you think about, you definitely also have a little bit of that Hollywood flair. You're gonna start drawing the celebrities. Oprah is gonna throw a fundraiser.

Obama: Right.

Jon: That doesn't seem good. I still remember Howard Dean in Iowa, with Martin Sheen introducing him, quoting an Indian poet to a caucus group of literally like AFL–CIO workers, and just seeing their faces like this: "Huh?? What is he talking about?"

Obama: Well, you know, you don't use folks in that way. I think Oprah's support is wonderful. I think having the celebrities want to do stuff for you — but the truth is, in Iowa and New Hampshire, people just want to talk to you. They want to lift the hood, they want to kick the tires, they want to look you in the eye, they want to get a sense, are you telling the truth? There's nobody that can do that job other than you.

Jon: And Iowa can be won on the ground.

Obama: Iowa can be won on the ground, and one of the things that we've been so excited about is just seeing the volunteer energy. You get these young people, from Iowa, who are volunteering, coming into the office, and people, you know, they're impressed by that. That's part of the message we're trying to send in the campaign is that the only way we can break out of the gridlock and overcome the special interests and the lobbyists is if people get involved and they get engaged and we break out of this sort of Red State/Blue State, half the country's divided, there's nothing we can do about it, you know, we've just gotta battle it out.

Jon: Can a Senator do it? So often now it's the governors. Is there something about — because the Senate — it's very hard to run on your record in the Senate because the Senate is so paralyzed and nuanced.

Obama: Well, it's paralyzed and it's designed for you to take bad votes, right? And, you know, a governor is more likely to be able to set the terms of the debate. They can give a speech; they say, "This is my initiative, this is my proposal, I won't sign it unless I agree with it." You know, with Senators you end up having to actually vote on stuff that has no relevance whatsoever, but can be used later on to attack you.

Jon: The whole meme that Hillary Clinton is very experienced — she's been in the Senate a few years longer than you, and then she was the First Lady. Are they counting that? Does that go on the résumé? 'Cause I'm not sure, I mean, if that's — they keep saying, "She's the experienced candidate," and I keep wondering, man, she's been in the Senate a couple of years, but I don't think First Lady counts. Does it? Or does her husband's résumé somehow —

Obama: I think that, first of all, she's a very capable Senator. She's very smart. I think people rightly give her credit for having been a participant in the Clinton Administration, and that she was doin' some heavy lifting on issues, but I do think that, increasingly, what Americans are looking for is not Washington experience, but do you have life experience that is gonna lead you to make good decisions, and are you in touch with what's happening on the ground.

Jon: Would you take any Democrat in the field over any Republican? Is there a Republican in the field that you admire, that you think would do a nice job?

Obama: You know, I think some of these folks are decent people. I mean, Mike Huckabee — no, no, no.

Jon: [in character voice] Ooh, worst back-handed compliment ever!

Obama: No, I think there are guys like Huckabee who I think are sincere and decent, but if you look at how they were trying to outbid each other on Guantánamo, you know, we're gonna detain even more people, and alienate even more folks outside our borders — that kind of stuff, I think, is not serving the Republican Party well, and is not gonna serve the country well.

Jon: Well, here's to staying above the fray and not having the Red–Blue divide any more, and we hope you come back and see us again soon.

Obama: It is a thrill; I love this show. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Jon: Thank you very much. Senator Barack Obama; we'll be right back. Nicely done.
Personally, I think the single most important quality I'm looking for in a President is the international perspective to see the position of the United States in relation to our allies, our adversaries, and the uncommitted people in the world. George W. Bush, who had literally never even been to Europe before becoming President, demonstrates the danger of looking only within our own borders. Barack Obama, who has lived overseas; Bill Richardson, who was our U.N. ambassador; Chris Dodd, who was in the Peace Corps; Joe Biden, who has been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many, many years; and Hillary Clinton, who was involved in the inner workings of the White House for eight years; all easily sail past Bush on that score. However, I think it's fair to say that Obama's Presidency would fire the world's imagination, and change the world's view of America, more than any other candidate in the race. The real lesson of 9/11 is that the way the world sees the United States, has a direct bearing on our national security. Huckabee is interesting, most particularly for his comments about Bush's place in the ranks of our greatest Presidents, but his position on evolution is the most obvious deal-breaker for me with Huckabee.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Naughty, naughty, BAD web designer!

b'day cake
Today is my birthday, so I'm making plans to go to a movie. I went to, home of obnoxious, idiotic paper lunch-bag puppets, and checked the showtimes for a couple of recent releases I haven't seen yet. Trouble is, Fandango clearly knows better than I do which film I want to see. Every time my mouse goes anywhere near the ad for Balls of Fury (a film I am not particularly excited about; while it might be very funny, I'd give long odds it will be excruciatingly bad), the JavaScript widget pops information onto the front of the window, completely obscuring the information I actually went to the web site to find. Worse yet, I have to wait until the Balls of Fury blather loads completely before I can make it go away; the "X close" button is the very last thing to load. It's called a "mouseover" pop-up, meaning that it is triggered any time the mouse pointer passes over the target zone, and it's annoying as hell.

This is another case of "just because you can, doesn't mean you should." If I want to see more information about your ad, I will click on it myself; if I don't click on it, don't force me to see your content.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Kvetching about the cable guy

My cable TV is not working correctly, and the cable guy blew me off this afternoon. The customer service rep on Wednesday went through the remote diagnostic procedures, but resetting my cable card didn't reset my access to the premium channels that I am paying extra for. We set up an appointment for Friday between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.; I made sure I was home, awake, and in reach of a phone at all times. I had given them my home number as a primary contact, and, since they insisted on having a backup contact number, I gave them my cellphone number, too. Since I was in my own home, though, I didn't have my cellphone turned on. I figured that the cable people would have the common sense to try the primary contact number first, and only try the secondary number if there was no answer on the primary. But no, at 2:58 p.m., the cable guy called my cellphone. The call rang over to voicemail, so he just hung up without leaving a message and crossed me off his list as "not home." I now have to wait until Sunday to get my HBO and Showtime.

What bothers me most, though, is that, when I called in at 3:45 to find out where the cable guy was, the customer service rep insisted that the technician had tried both of the numbers they had listed for me, even after I explained that (1) I was home, (2) the phone was working perfectly, and (3) the phone did not ring, thereby conclusively proving that the technician did not try the primary contact number. The next glitch is no one's fault but my own: while waiting on hold for a supervisor, I accidentally hung up instead of switching back from speakerphone. I was thus deprived of the opportunity to express to the supervisor how unsatisfactory an experience I had today with Comcast Cable. Ptui.

When I called back, they offered to have one of their "go-back" teams come by before the end of the day. A guy came right at 6:00, but all he was able to do is poke around and tell me, "Yeah, your cable's not working, but they didn't give me any parts, so I can't do anything for it." They'll send someone by on Sunday, before the crack of noon. Bleah.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Army spokesman on Inside Iraq

Al Jazeera English's must-see Inside Iraq program is usually a panel discussion, moderated by the host, Jasim Azzawi. However, today he had a one-on-one interview with Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner, a special assistant to the President on Iraq and currently spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq. Jasim challenged Bergner on the prospects for meaningful and lasting improvements in Iraq from the current troop surge, the role of Iran in Iraq, the unaccounted loss of thousands of weapons, and other issues. A transcript follows below the fold; the video clip is not yet up on YouTube, although many other Al Jazeera programs can be found there, as well as on the Al Jazeera web site.

Inside Iraq, Al Jazeera English, original air date 2007-08-17, ©2007 Al Jazeera English

Jasim Azzawi: Hello, and welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm Jasim Azzawi. The U.S. claim the surge is making progress and routing al Qaeda, but with chaos reigning supreme, is victory slipping fast? With an Iraqi army yet to stand up and menacing militias yet to be crushed, will U.S. troops prevail in time, before an impatient Congress throw in the towel? When General Petraeus addresses the U.S. Senate in mid-September, will he assure a skeptical nation of victory, or ask for more time, or will he face an August surprise?
Ayman Moyheldin: Is it or is it not working? That's the question Americans want answered when General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker submit their assessment of President Bush's surge policy, come September. But since their mission began in January, when President Bush ordered 20,000 more troops into Iraq, progress has been mixed. In an early draft report submitted in July, just a month after all U.S. troops that were called up to Iraq, arrived, only 8 out of the 18 benchmarks imposed by the U.S. Congress on the Iraqi government, had been met. In 8 other areas, progress was unsatisfactory, the report concluded; in two other areas, progress or the lack thereof was mixed.

Despite the initial assessment, the U.S. Army's chief of staff said the surge was working.
General Casey: The surge is having the intended military effect. Our guys are seeing progress on the security front. What remains to be seen is whether the Iraqis can take advantage of the opportunity and create the political accommodation it's going to take to succeed.
General Casey went so far to say his commanders are optimistic that the Iraqis could soon take over control in Nineweh, one of Iraq's largest provinces.
Casey: The Nineweh province, where Mosul, the second city of Iraq, is based, is about ready to move under Iraqi control.
But on the same day General Casey made those comments, a series of car bombs killed hundreds of Iraqis, making it one of the single deadliest attacks in the country. Ironically, the attacks happened in the same province the general cited for security progress. If the security situation in Iraq has improved, as General Casey and others have argued, it has certainly not curbed the number of Iraqis fleeing the country. According to the U.S. State Dept, approximately 2.2 million Iraqis are now refugees in Jordan and Syria alone. And, in President Bush's so-called War on Terror, the U.S. intelligence community estimates the war in Iraq has done little to undermine al Qaeda. On the contrary, say intelligence experts, it concluded al Qaeda is more determined to strike the U.S. now than ever before, that Iraq has become a major recruiting ground for the network. In addition, the Iraqi government has yet to make substantial progress on some key issues, such as a national oil law. Sunni politicians have withdrawn from prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet, raising fears his government won't survive much longer.

With a month to go until the final report is submitted to the U.S. Congress, many are wondering what, if anything, has changed since the interim report a month ago. One thing is certain: both sides of the Iraq war debate in Washington will use the report to drive their points even farther.
Jasim: To examine the military conditions in Iraq, and to get a preview of what General Petraeus might report to the U.S. Senate, I'm joined from Baghdad by Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, spokesman of the multi-national force in Iraq. General Bergner, welcome to Inside Iraq. Let me start with the multiple operations the U.S. Army is conducting for the past several weeks. We had Arrowhead Ripper, we had Phantom Strike, and now there is a big operation underway called Lightning Hammer. Are these making progress, and if the answer is yes, what is the nature of that progress?

BGen. Kevin Bergner: Well, Jasim, first of all, thanks for being — allowing us to come talk to you on your show. The operations that you referred to are part of a broader operation that has been called Operation Phantom Thunder. Those operations have been specifically focused on improving population security in Baghdad and in the belt surrounding Baghdad, and applying pressure to the terrorist and extremist networks in both of those places simultaneously. What we've seen over the last eight weeks, as those operations have gone forward, is we have seen a significant improvement in the level of population security in places like Baquba, where just two months ago it would have been very difficult to get food distribution and medical supplies and the other essential services the Iraqi people need, into that city. Just this past weekend, the deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Salih (برهم أحمد صالح), led a ministerial delegation to Baquba to meet with the provincial leaders, the governor and the council members, to work together to restore those essential services, and to work on ways to further improve the security for the citizens of Baquba and Diyala province more broadly. And so, the fact that the deputy prime minister and other leaders from the central government, are now able to go work directly with these provinces and directly with the people there, is a very important sign of progress, not to mention the restoration of the food distribution systems and the medical supplies that are so important to the citizens of Iraq.

Jasim: One hears these positive reports, and the President, President Bush, that is, mentioned it several times, and he's assuring the Congress as well as the American people that progress is being made in Iraq. I guess cynics would say, What makes you think it's sustainable? What makes you think this is permanent? What makes you think that the people you are chasing in Baquba, Nijala, will not revert back and go to Anbar? The same people that you chased in Anbar, you know, they will come to other places. The militias that you chased in Sadr City and other places, they will just go to the south, and pretty much outwait you, waiting for the next phase of American deployment in Iraq.

Bergner: Well, first of all, the nature of our operations and the success of the Iraqi and Coalition security forces in putting pressure on al Qaeda and on the extremist networks operating south of Baghdad, is changing the dynamics of the population in many of these communities. What I mean by that is, we are now seeing tribal leaders who are stepping forward and working directly with the Iraqi security forces and the local and provincial governments. They are making commitments to one another to stand against al Qaeda, and to work together to restore security to their neighborhoods. It's that change in the population's commitment, their confidence to work with their government and their security forces, that gives the momentum that's now underway the prospects of being sustainable and enduring over time.

Jasim: Indeed, the dynamics is changing in Iraq. The alliances are shifting. The people that were dominant in certain parts have been routed. Having said that, and I know it's very difficult for you to comment on perhaps what other countries might think, but since it is in the public domain and just recent, yesterday, in the House of Commons, the foreign relations committee said they doubt very much that this surge will work out. They doubt very much that this is sustainable.

Bergner: Well, first, these are important debates, Jasim, for each country to have, and we understand the nature of democratic governments, and we understand that this is a central issue for our country as well as the U.K., as well as for the people of Iraq, and so these discussions are going to take place. What we base our assessments on, and how we look at the circumstance is perhaps epitomized by what we saw this past week, when the Iraqi people joined together with their security forces to allow the safe commemoration of the death of the Seventh Imam. Very important religious commemoration, to take place. Millions of people marched into Baghdad to fulfill that obligation. They did so safely. They did so, most importantly, under an operation that was planned and coordinated and implemented by the Iraqi security forces, with the coalition in support. But this is largely a core-level operation that the Iraqi forces undertook, both police and army forces, under the leadership of Lt Gen Ahboud, the commander of forces in Baghdad, and they did so very safely.

Jasim: With all this positive news, and yet report after report, and let me quote you one from the American side, the U.S. Air Force, in conjunction with Rand, which is a quite prestigious outfit in the United States, says, "Withdrawal by the United States is almost irresistible."

Bergner: The commitment that our country has made to work with the Iraqi government and to help them restore a sustainable level of security in Iraq, is something that we're working very hard to fulfill. We're seeing progress on a number of different levels, but that's not to belie the point that this is still a very, very tough fight. It's still a very difficult challenge for both Iraqi security forces and the Coalition. There are signs of progress amid the very tough fight, that's going to continue to be difficult for some time to come.

Jasim: One of the biggest problems facing the United States right now, is what public enemy which used to be al Qaeda, right now is becoming the militias, just like the President said. To what extent do you think you will have better success in this next phase with the militias, since they have scattered, and they are all over the place, especially from the center to the south.

Bergner: Well, first of all, it's important to note up front that the security situation in Iraq is a very complex one. It's a mosaic, if you will. There are threats from a number of different groups, but unquestionably al Qaeda in Iraq, and its affiliate organizations, are the number one threat to the security and stability of the Iraqi people, and so we continue to focus a great deal of our effort on that, because of the near-term threat that's largely represented by the spectacular attacks, these barbaric attacks, that tend to incite sectarian tensions, and are such a plague on the Iraqi people. That is what we're working very hard against. At the same time, we are chipping away at these other extremist groups, these special groups that we have talked about very openly as a serious security problem for the people of Iraq and the Coalition as well, and we are continuing to attack these special groups and interdict the sources of supply, sources of support if you will, that they continue to benefit from. So, both of them are an important aspect of our efforts in these operations that are underway, and will continue to be a focus for us.

Jasim: General Bergner, thank you very much. We'll take a short break now. When we come back, I'm going to ask him about the source of this weapons that is coming from across the border from Iran. Stay with us.
The enemy in Iraq is still dangerous. The surge is still in its early stages. Changing conditions on the ground is difficult work, but our troops are proving it can be done. — President Bush
[commercial break]
The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient. — Stephen Hadley, U.S. National Security Advisor
Jasim: Welcome to Inside Iraq. We are talking today to the spokesman of the multi-national force, General Bergner. A month before General Petraeus will submit his report to the Senate. General Bergner, let me quote you what the President says. He says, "When we catch you playing a non-constructive role in Iraq, there will be a price to pay," in direct reference to Iran. It is my understanding they have been playing a very non-constructive role, so what price have they paid so far?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, we have been very transparent and very forthcoming in talking about the special groups which are extremist militia elements that have been benefiting from weapons, from training, from funding, and from tactical direction sometimes from special operatives who were advising them. You know, we have reported on the detention of the former commander of the special groups, Qais Khazali, and we have reported on the detention of a Lebanese Hezbollah operative who was serving as a Quds Force proxy here in Iraq. So those represent the kinds of operations that we are continuing to conduct inside Iraq.

Jasim: Mr. Daqduq?

Bergner: That's correct, Mr. Daqduq, Ali Mussa Daqduq. So we are continuing to conduct operations to chip away at those special groups, to chip away at their resources, [talking over the host] and to work closely with the Iraqi forces in dealing with this threat that the government of Iraq...

Jasim: But, General, the President said, "When we catch those Iranian agents in Iraq, undermining our operations, they will be killed," and so far, aside from the five people who were captured in Irbil and detained, we don't see, nobody sees, even the Americans are a little bit skeptical. What does holding the American forces in Iraq from being prosecuting more robustly the action against Iranian agents in Iraq, since you are saying they are undermining our operations in Iraq?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, actually, we are conducting very robust operations. Just in the last few weeks, we have captured or killed some twenty members of these special groups who are connected to these extremist organizations, and eight of those operations, I would point out, were actually conducted unilaterally by Iraqi security forces. So both Iraqi forces and Coalition forces are conducting very robust operations against these extremist groups.

Jasim: And yet, according to Lt. Gen. Raymond Oderno, the EFP's are increasingly coming from Iran. Twenty-three American soldiers out of the 69 that were killed in July were killed by EFP's, so are you saying that the more you are doing, from your end, the Iranians are doing even a greater role by supplying these deadly weapons to the militias?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, what I would say is, this is a very tough fight, and it's one where we are continuing to make inroads against those kinds of organizations, those extremist groups, that are employing EFP's against our forces and the Iraqi people. We will continue to operate against them, and we will eventually make more progress against them, but it is a tough fight, and it is one where all the neighbors of Iraq have an opportunity to fulfill their commitments that they have made to help stem the flow of those kinds of resources that are coming to these special groups.

Jasim: There is something puzzling, General Bergner. It doesn't seem as if you and Prime Minister al-Maliki see eye-to-eye about the role of Iran. We heard what you said, we know the exact role they are playing, while he was in Tehran, he said Iran is playing a very constructive role in Iraq. That, to a large degree got the President's ire; he said I have to call my friend and talk to him heart to heart to find out exactly what he means.

Bergner: Well, Iran has made certain commitments to the government of Iraq, and it would be helpful to see them actually deliver on all of those commitments, including helping work against these extremist organizations we've been talking about.

Jasim: General Bergner, there was a report recently that about 90,000 small arms given to the Iraqi government, to the Iraqi army, are missing. Are we talking about an auditing problem here, or actually these actual weapons somehow left the depots, are in the hands of militias, al Qaeda, insurgents, and other places that are attacking civilians as well as allied forces?

Bergner: Well, first, Jasim, I would tell you we take the report very seriously, and we are following up on the recommendations that were in that report, but remember back in 2004 and 2005, which was the focus of this report, the circumstance in Iraq was a very difficult one. It was one where there had been a crisis in Fallujah, there was a crisis in Najaf, and then there was another challenge in Fallujah later in that year, and this was a time when Iraqi security forces were still very much a work in progress. They were still developing their own ability to account for this equipment. So on one level, it was important to get the necessary equipment into their hands, and at the same time start building those systems where accountability could be maintained on the level that it needs to be maintained. We have made great progress since then; in fact, the systems that you see today in Iraq, not only is there a very good accountability program in place, but you'd see things like biometrics, meaning fingerprints and retinal scans and all of those other uniquely distinguishing factors that are associated with the soldier that draws that weapon, and there's a very much improved record-keeping system underway.

Jasim: The U.S. forces cannot leave, cannot go home, before the Iraqi army stands up, and right now, despite four years of tremendous effort and money spent by the Iraqi government, as well as the American government, the Iraqi army is not up to par. When do you reckon that this Iraqi army can assume responsibility, whether shortly, to replace, perhaps, the British as they decide to leave, or with the beginning of the redeployment of American forces, some time, perhaps, middle of next year?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, the Iraqi army in particular actually is very capable of performing many operations, and is doing so on its own in many cases. In fact, where I used to be stationed in my first tour in Iraq, in Nineweh province, the Second Division and the Third Division of the Iraqi army are performing very, very well, and they both are led by very effective Iraqi army division commanders. The Iraqi special operations force is a high-end force, if you will; it's very, very capable and doing an excellent job. There are other elements, there are other levels of capability, generally those units reflect the quality of their leadership, and their leadership is still a work in progress in many cases, but make no mistake about it, the Iraqi forces — army and police — are fighting bravely, they are suffering losses three times the level of the Coalition, and they are doing a courageous job in many cases of protecting the Iraqi people. Much work still to be done, but much progress being achieved as well.

Jasim: General Bergner, let's take an overarching view. Baghdad as of this moment is not secured. Perhaps the number of deaths has lessened to a big degree, but the fighting and perhaps the militias have moved south, and before those militias are disarmed and perhaps rehabilitated if not crushed, Iraq will never be safe, and right now the understanding from the American army that Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of JAM, the leader of Jaish al-Mahdi, is not in control of his militias. He is perhaps in Iran. How do you see the next phase of taking out the militias? Do you have sufficient forces in order to take the battle to them in the south?

Bergner: Well, actually, the Iraqi security forces, to include the 8th Iraqi army division, the 10th Iraqi army division, that are operating in those kinds of areas, are doing exactly the kinds of operations you described, and under the leadership of people like General Othman [Ali Farhood], who commands the 8th Iraqi army division, they're being quite effective, actually, in dealing with some of these criminal elements — these criminal militia elements — that you describe. So there are operations underway, and they will continue to be enabled by the Coalition forces as well.

Jasim: Let me combine two questions in one, if I may, because I don't have much time. Is the Iraqi army a national army, or has it been cleansed of its sectarianism, and when Petraeus goes to the U.S. Senate, will he give a positive report or a negative report? In one minute, General Bergner.

Bergner: Well, the Iraqi army is very much a national institution. They recruit nationally. Their soldiers represent the significant diversity of the Iraqi people, and they are very much a national force. To your second question, Jasim, when General Petraeus accompanies Ambassador Crocker back to Washington, he has said he will provide a comprehensive and forthcoming assessment of places where there has been progress and places where there may not have been as much progress, but it will cover the circumstances on the ground at the point at time which he goes back to report.

Jasim: Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, spokesman of the multi-national force in Iraq, thank you for being our guest on Inside Iraq.
Of course, the real question is whether General Petraeus will be allowed to testify to the Congress about the actual conditions in Iraq, or whether he will be shackled to the official White House line. I have much greater confidence in Al Jazeera to give me a clear and unvarnished picture of both the good and the bad news.

update: corrected the spelling of the name of the Al Jazeera correspondent, Ayman Moyheldin.

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