diet coke for breakfast

Monday, October 30, 2006

Posted by Tanstaafl

What Now?

It’s been over a year since anyone posted to this site. There are many reasons why none of us have posted here. Two of the contributors have started other blogs. All of us are busy with school or work. Personally, I got married last August, and would rather spend time with my wife than writing long blog posts that only a handful of people ever read. But, a couple of columns by Peggy Noonan (available here and here) that I read today have me thinking that a big reason I haven’t posted for so long is frustration. Frustration with the lack of progress in Iraq, frustration with the Bush Administration, frustration with Congress, and most of all frustration with feeling like there is nothing I can do about it. Well I’m tired of being frustrated; it just takes too much energy. So, I’m going to try to vent that frustration here. Hopefully I’ll do it cogently if not concisely.

My biggest frustration is with the Bush administration. I find myself disagreeing with their policies more and more often. I don’t like the air of moral superiority on social issues. I’m concerned with the abandonment of state’s rights. The expansion of entitlements makes no sense to me. The fact that the President hasn’t been able to muster the courage to wield a veto and slash pork from the bills that cross his desk confuses me. However, I’m willing to ignore all of those issues for now. Perhaps I’ll address them more fully in a later post, but now I’m most concerned with our foreign and national security policies. I think this administration is drifting aimlessly and continues to make unintelligent and regrettable decisions while trying to protect the American People.

We Were Wrong

I was rebuked earlier last week by a man whose intelligence, honor and honesty I respect more than anyone I’ve ever met. He reminded me that four years ago, when I was expressing support for President Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq, that he had cautioned me and had predicted most of what has now gone wrong in Iraq. He said then, and repeated now, that the sectarian violence was easy to predict. All one had to do was read Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence to predict that loyalty to the different tribal factions in Iraq would supercede any nationalism that the Iraqi people felt and that civil war would break out between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds (I ordered a copy from Amazon last week). Even now, he warned, the Kurds are likely arming themselves for when they enter the sectarian fighting.

He was right then, and he’s right now. All you have to do is go into this site’s archives to see how wrong I was. I would like to rely on the excuse that we all thought Saddam had WMD, but I can’t. You often hear Republicans frustratingly exclaim that all of Iraq’s behavior pointed toward having them, and that even Bill Clinton thought Saddam had WMD. Maybe we were right about the WMD; maybe he did have them. But at this point, does it matter? Unless it’s the best-kept secret in the world, we did not recover them. We may have uncovered some facilities and a few old chemical capable artillery shells, but there have been no massive stockpiles that were ready to deploy like we’d been led to believe. At best, our intelligence capabilities are so weak that Saddam was able to trick us into believing that he had the weapons. At worst, our military response was so weak that he was able to do what we were trying to prevent, and give the weapons to other unfriendly regimes and terrorist groups before we could stop him.

How We’ve Failed

What about our other goals in Iraq? How is the burgeoning democracy and shining example of freedom in the Middle East coming along? If you lived in Syria or Iran, would you be anxious to revolt and overthrow the dictators there? Does setting up a brand-new democracy look appealing to the Arab Street right now?

President Bush is fond of referring to the war in Iraq as the front lines in the war on Terror. On this, I agree. I do believe that the "fly-paper" strategy is working to a degree. I think our troops are better equipped to deal with Al Qaeda than the average US citizen. So to the extent that jihadists flood into Iraq instead of setting up cells in the US and Europe, we are making things better. (I don’t put much stock in the NIE that was leaked; another recent NIE said that North Korea was years from having a nuclear weapon.) I doubt that Arabs hate us because we have troops in Iraq. I believe they hate us because their nations are impoverished and we are rich. They feel humiliated and don’t know what else to do but lash out.

But the Administration does not address that problem either. The war on terror is a war of ideas. We won the Cold War with the Soviet Union by telling and, more importantly, showing the world why our way of life was better. The people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union established democracies not because we told them they must. We didn’t need to depose their oppressors; they did it themselves. President Bush should be giving speeches constantly about how important it is that schools in the Middle East teach math and science instead of hate and xenophobia. We should dramatically increase the funding for the Radio Free programs. This is a war of ideas and we are not even arming our forces with them.

The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be the first step in dealing with the Axis of Evil. The plan was to remove a leg of the stool and weaken its balance. In the mean time, we have let the other two members slip out of control. Neither Iran nor North Korea takes any of our threats seriously. They recognize that the American people are so war weary right now that the President will not even try to get support to act militarily. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon after the President warned them of serious repercussions. And those repercussions were very serious: we helped draft a sternly worded UN resolution.

Are We Safer?

Supporters of the Administration proudly observe that we have not had a terrorist attack on American soil since September 11th. I join them in being pleased, but I am unconvinced that it is due to the Administration’s activities. I do not deny that some of their programs have yielded results. Operation Enduring Freedom clearly disrupted Bin Laden and his minions. I have no way of evaluating the success of camp X-Ray or the surveillance programs. These programs may have also helped make significant strives in preventing future attacks. I worry though, that pride goeth before a fall.

Our Homeland Security department is woefully inadequate. Not for a lack for a lack of resources but for a lack of focus and dysfunctional priorities. TSA is one of the worst government agencies ever devised. To my knowledge, airport screening has never prevented a terrorist attack. The notion that random sampling of passengers will deter someone who is willing and eager to die for his cause is stupid. The idea that outlawing Dasani and Colgate on airplanes makes us safer is ridiculous. They have added significant cost and hassle to flying and for what purpose? To make us feel safer? To provide jobs to screeners?

What Now?

I do not think I have outlined anything here that has not been said by others. Most of this criticism comes from Democrats, but then they stop. I do not intend to make that mistake; "what good is a cynic with no better plan?" The ideas that I will try to articulate below are not all my own. Many of them belong to the same man who rebuked my naiveté leading up to the war in Iraq. I hope that I can describe them as well as he does, and supplement them with other ideas as possible.

1) Make a convincing governmental effort toward developing good alternative energy sources. I am not a global warming alarmist; in fact, another glance at the Diet Coke For Breakfast archives will reveal me to be a skeptic. I am not a member of Green Peace nor the Sierra Club, and yet I recently bought a hybrid car. I paid a premium, above and beyond what I will likely save in gas, because I believe that a significant reason why we are unwilling to deal harshly with countries like Saudi Arabia is that we need their oil. Despots run almost every nation with significant oil reserves. The rulers of those countries can continue to oppress their people because they don’t need the consent of the governed. The oil money feeds their regimes, and as a result we are culpable. 50 years of US foreign policy has been contaminated by our need for oil.

During World War II, we used the Manhattan Project to develop the tools to beat the Japanese and the Germans. During this global struggle we need a similar program. However, we should use 21st century tools like market forces and entrepreneurial innovation. The weapons we seek now are productive instead of destructive, and we must leverage the energy of private enterprise to get them. Instead of simple government research grants, create programs like the X Prize. Congress should offer perhaps $20 million for the first commercial grade ultra capacitor that can store enough energy to power the average American home’s electricity needs for more than 1 week. They could announce a program to award $100 million dollars to the first successful program for converting oil shale into diesel fuel. Imagine if 50 organizations each spent $20 million in oil shale research in pursuit of the prize. The market will have turned $100 million into $1 billion. Programs like these could help dramatically improve our prospects of energy independence.

2) Abandon our desperate need for stability in Iraq and elsewhere. There is only one strategic goal that is currently keeping us in Iraq. Our continued presence there serves the sole purpose of stabilizing the country. But at this point, is that still an achievable goal or even an advisable one?

What makes us believe that we can ever stop the different tribal factions from fighting? Arab tribes have been killing each other for centuries. Only two forces ever seem to relieve the fighting. First is when they are fighting some other, common enemy. The second is when they are oppressed and controlled by a vicious dictator, such as Saddam. Right now, we are playing the role of the former. If we want to relinquish that role, and still unite the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds it is more than likely we would have to play the role of the latter, which cuts against our national culture.

Even assuming we could help guide the Iraqi people to peace and unity, is it our job? Recent polls suggest that the people do not want us there. If that is the case, it takes a large degree of arrogance to assume that we know what is best for them. It would cut against the nature of most conservatives, to which President Bush professes to be one, to engage in that type of conceit.

Barring the Iraqis’ desire for our help, we could justify keeping our troops in harm’s way only if it serves a compelling US interest. The stated reason is to prevent Iraq from becoming the chaotic haven for terrorists that Afghanistan once was. However, yet again it is conceited to believe that we can prevent that even by maintaining our current troop levels there. So far we have been unable to close the borders and it took us years to kill al-Zarqawi. Even now that we have, October has been the bloodiest month for US troops since the invasion. What gives us hope that staying longer will help us turn some corner?

In a recent letter to James Taranto’s Best of the Web Today on, a US Army Sergeant wrote that we need to increase troop levels to 400,000 to 500,000 and completely control the movement of the people. He says that Iraq is a "Rwanda-waiting-to-happen" and to fail to control the country by continuing our current "stay the course" strategy "is going to be the death knell for hundreds of thousands of Sunnis." Unfortunately, even by putting that many troops on the ground, I am unconvinced that we could quell the violence. If the insurgency wants to fight, it will continue to fight. Clamping down will likely embolden them and help them find even more support amongst the population.

The anonymous Sergeant also mentions several outside influences: "Saudi Arabian Wahhabists, Iranian mullahs and Syrian Baathists" are supporting the various factions in Iraq. This would seem to be one of the primary factors contributing to the sustained violence. These groups have played a significant role in the suffering of the Iraqi people, perhaps now it is time we demand that they play a role in reconstruction, play a role in making life better for the Iraqi people.

As many of the Administration’s supporters observe, setting an exact timetable for withdrawal could make the insurgents and terrorists bolder. However, I now believe it is time that we start pulling our troops out. We can, and should, give leaders of the other nations in the region not an exact schedule, but a general idea of how long it will take us to pack up and redeploy. We can make it clear to them that if they do not want chaos in Iraq then they can step up and take a hand in rebuilding. We did the dirty work of taking-out Saddam, now they can stabilize the region.

A reasonable critique of that plan would be "what happens if they do not play the role we ask them to?" In that case, there would obviously be significant instability as a land-grab between all of the competing tribes both inside and outside of Iraq ensues. But, as I stated above, we cannot be afraid of instability.

In fact, instability in Iraq could serve two important strategic goals. First, if the Saudis, the Iranians, the Syrians, and others are all fighting each other in Iraq, then they will very likely lose focus on attacking us. By giving up our effort to keep them apart, we relinquish the role of "common enemy." Second, the other members of the Axis of Evil will start to take our threats seriously. Right now, they believe that we will not attack, or even impose sanctions, because we are afraid of instability. If the President announced that we are pulling out and that we do not care what happens in Iraq from here on out – that it is the Middle East’s problem – some of our enemies might see it as a victory. They will believe they drove us out of Iraq, but the heads of the other rogue nations will be worried that they have lost their trump card. We can even drive the message home by telling the world that in any future engagements, we will not bother occupying the nations we attack. We will achieve whatever military goals we lay out, and then walk away. That should scare anyone who thinks of antagonizing the US.

3) Finally, President Bush should immediately repeal Part 2 Section 11 of Executive Order 12333. The Order states, "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." President Reagan signed the executive order in 1981. The rationale was that if we target foreign heads of state, our enemies would target our leaders. It was also a reaction to the declassification of the numerous botched CIA attempts to kill Castro. At the time, the nation wanted out of the assassination business.

Unfortunately, this policy allows tyrants to hide behind their people. They are able to be bullies on the global stage because they know that we will have to fight an entire war to get at them personally. They know that we have the military technology to kill them, but not the will. They saw that it took us more than a decade, and two wars to finally capture Saddam. They know that we had Bin Laden in our cross hairs several times and let him get away. Well, why don’t we show them we have the will to target those who make the policies that threaten our citizens, not just the people forced to carry out those policies. If President Bush were to immediately rescind this prohibition, Kim Jong Il would have to worry that the next time he stepped up on a podium to announce a nuclear test, a smart bomb would be rapidly approaching. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have to start looking over his shoulder, wondering if any US snipers were on nearby hilltops. This might start to affect a very favorable change in their behavior without the huge loss of life that it would take, on our side and theirs, under current US policy.

Where We Go From Here

These policy recommendations are not perfect. They are not meant to be the final answer, but instead a subject for debate. I am open to other suggestions and would be happy to engage in dialogue. Hopefully this will contribute to a productive discussion of the path we need to take from here. No reasonable person can believe that the world is less dangerous than it was ten years ago. But, at the same time, do we believe that it is more dangerous than it was during the Cold War? We had thousands of ICBMs targeted at us and a powerful nation bent on controlling the globe. Through strong leadership, we were able to defend and ultimately preserve our way of life. We are in another ideological struggle of global scale, and it is high time for some more of that inspired leadership. Implementing these ideas may not seem immediately palatable, but leadership is not just doing what people want you to do. Leadership is doing what you believe is right and then convincing the people that it was the proper course. President Bush may not govern by polls, but right now he is not exhibiting leadership. If he wants celebrated role in history, if he wants to protect the American people from those who lust after our destruction, then he needs to start making changes now.

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