Monday, September 24, 2007

Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia (Demonizing Iran)

Today the consensus is that Iran is "evil", Ahmadinejad is a hate-monger and madman, Iran is an exporter of terrorism and is arming insurgents against American troops. Of course, Iran wasn't a "terrorist nation" when Reagan sold it arms, but needless to that's far too distant history for the American establishment to appreciate. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

Among the ironies here: that Iran has not attacked another nation for more than a century; that the United States helped Saddam Hussein kill an incredible number of Iranians; that while the United States has persecuted a murderous war in Iraq, it sis not wars but words that Americans find so offensive. Glenn Greenwald reminds us just how stunning all of this is, especially the shameful acquiescence of the American press. Part of that acquiescence means accepting hook, line, and sinker, bogus claims to the effect that finding Iranian-made parts in IEDs means that Iran is waging war against the United States (which is to say, Iran is responsible for any smuggling across its border, when Americans have a miserable record of keeping arms away from insurgents, including U.S.-bought supplies). Add the outrageousness of the claim that Americans ought to be able to invade countries at will and then claim that they have been attacked if arms cross from a neighboring country, over the porous border that they have created, because of the chaos that they have created. Finally, need we mention that Iran supports the Shiite government in Iraq, and that Americans are almost always attacked by Sunni insurgents, not by the Shiites Iran would be supplying? Iran and United States are, ironically, essentially on the same side.

Lets refresh ourselves on recent history to appreciate the full force of all of this:

  • 1953: Eisenhower has the CIA overthrow the prime minister of Iran and install a repressive puppet regime

  • 1979: This puppet regime, the Shah, is overthrown during the Islamic Revolution

  • 1980-1988: In repayment, the United States supports Saddam Husein's war against the Iran and his use of chemical weapons ("WMDs"), which killed 500,000 to a million Iranians

  • 1987: Not afraid to play both sides against each other, worried about Saddam's strength, and needing to raise cash for other blood sports, the Reagan administration illegally sold arms to Iran

  • 1992: Almost completing this turnaround, the United States attacks Iran's enemy, Saddam Hussein

  • 2003: Completing this turnaround and helping Iran reach its greatest point of strength, the United States removes Iran's enemy, Saddam Hussein, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displacing millions more, and effectively destroying an entire coutnry

Despite this history, the American establishment expresses no remorse for their complicity in Iranian suffering, or the recent killing of hundreds of thousands and the destruction of an entire country. They reserve all their energy for the words of Ahmadinejad--or for the highly prejudicial and arguably false translations of his words, despite the fact that Iranian Jews enjoy more rights and representation in Iran than Palestinians do in Israel. He is compared to Hitler--not, because like Bush, he is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands--but because he understandably dislikes the occupation of Palestine. And a great stir is made as to whether he should speak at Columbia--in fact, more outrage is expended by the establishment press on whether his words should be allowed on American soil than was expended over whether American bombs should fall in Iraq. And in exercising themselves about these words, they are untouched by the irony of the United States own bloody involvement in Iran, and completely unimpressed by Iran's relative pacifism in the face of all these onslaughts. They are utterly credulous towards the notion that Iran has become an "exporter of terrorism around the world" because of its natural alliance with anti-Israeli resistance or Shiite factions in Iraq; and despite the fact that al Qaeda is an enemy of Shiites and Iran; and despite the fact that this definition of Iran implicates both Reagan and Reagan Administration henchmen such as Michael Leeden as having traitorously shipped weapons to terrorists, when Iran was engaged in precisely the same types of sympathies and alliances at that time. Finally, they are not phased by the total inconsistency of American policy--the rapid and inexplicable switching of allegiances in order to foment one disastrous war after another; it takes almost no effort to bring the press and the American people to their intellectual knees--just a touch of demonization, the hint of a new enemy.

See Juan Cole for some sanity.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bush and the Primacy of the Political

Bush's speech is also a typical reflection of his utter disregard for the truth. That Petraeus' conclusions were predestined we all understand. (I've been hearing so much about "Petraeus and Crocker" that I wondered if they finally sent the Miami Vice to Iraq to put things right). Again, the Surge is designed to help Bush save face until he can pass the Iraq problem on to others, after which any failure can be blamed on political opponents. This is the real meaning of Iraq as an "engagement that extends beyond my presidency"--an unintentionally ironic remark to say the least. How brazen it is to ask us to take that farce seriously!

I think it's easy to lose site of how damaging such dishonest speeches can be: dishonesty ceases to register. The truth is no longer a "moral value". Instead of criticizing the dog and pony show for what it is--a show--the press take it seriously entirely on its own terms. They are willing to accept patently false premises--the a temporary, localized surge could have anything to do with the fate of Iraq--for the opportunity to debate its "effectiveness". It's an assault on basic critical thinking and common sense, but it's also an assault on respect for the truth. Bush can make such a speech because many Americans have lost the instinct to recoil from such bullshit. They are hardly aware of it; and that lack of awareness--of a basic capacity to think about the truth--is highly evident even among educated journalists.

Chalk this up to the primacy of the political: it's one thing for Bush's right wing worshipers feel like they understand him and his intentions; that he is a good man; that he respects "moral values"; that he is their strong charismatic leader. That just makes them gullible. But the press are gullible for the opposite reason: so cynical that they cease to expect the truth, and it no longer occurs to them to protest in the face of outrageous lies by those in power. That, after all, would destroy air of neutrality. "Neutrality" is the loophole through which any political manipulator can walk: invent a lie, no matter how absurd, and put it in the mouth of someone in a position of political power. As its documenters, the press naturally respect power; add to that respect the self-conception of fairness, and you have a "debate"--talking heads who "analyze" at length positions that rest on premises that no lone believes are true. They can look rationale as long as the framing premises are never touched. Inside that framework, everything is logical and consistent. Outside, you wonder if the world has gone mad.

An Engagement Beyond His Presidency

It's hard not to hear in optimistic stories of the "surge" the ironic evidence of the original crime, the obliteration of Iraq. Bush's speech:

  • Brazenly reminds us of the initial failure to establish security that destroyed the future of Iraq

  • Rubs salt in the wound by asking us to treat a mendacious political farce, the Surge, as a serious albeit belated attempt at establishing this security

Bush recounts how bad Anbar Province was, for instance, just a year ago--how "the local people were suffering from the Taliban-like rule of Al Qaeda" and "need to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods". He doesn't seem to grasp how odd that an American invasion subjected Iraqis, for a number of years, to a Taliban-like rule that followed a period when "chaos reigned". Nor does he talk about how astonishing it is that an American invasion--the disembarkation of the brave new democracy-bearing saviors--inaugurated this reign of chaos.

That's because Iraqi suffering is a useful tidbit in current PR campaign--no evocation is too shameful when Bush's thinks what is at stake are his comically deluded notions about establishing a legacy. The plight of Iraqis is, rather than an occasion for remorse, a domestic political opportunity: even if it means rubbing salt in the wound by illustrating the stark difference between what could have been in Iraq and what is in fact the case. Take one small area of Iraq, add some troops for a brief irrelevant time, and remind us in microcosm of what how important it was to quickly and comprehensively establish security: four-and-a-half years ago. The surge may help Bush save face, but it does not seem to touch his conscience that his cynical political ploy means dead soldiers and has no implication for the fate of Iraqis. But then they are all dying for a good cause: Bush's reputation.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Philosophers are Here to Save the Day! (Fish and Lilla on Liberalism)

Stanley Fish objects to the claim that "liberalism is not a substantive ideology but a political device that allows many ideologies to flourish." He argues that liberalism comprises a conception of the good life. That is at the same time its own faith, and one that "eviscerates" other faiths. These faiths do not fully flourish unless they have political as well as private effects--unless they can align "the affairs of the world" with their own conception of the good life. Hence religions that much such strong claims aren't really being tolerated--not in their natural forms, because truly tolerating a religion would mean instituting a theocracy in the name of that religion. Consequently, liberalism naturally involves a "close-mindedness with respect to religions that do not honor the line between the secular and the sacred." Liberal societies tolerate "reasonable" doctrines, meaning doctrines that respect that line; but they suppress doctrines that would cross that line. Hence liberalism is "militantly secular and incapable, by definition, of seeing the strong claim of religion ...."

Much of this is a good analysis of liberalism. Unfortunately, the conclusion that liberalism is incapable of "seeing the strong claim of religion" does not follow. Stanley Fish seems to appreciate this claim. And anyone can advocate doctrines that cross the line between secular and sacred. It is acting upon the those doctrines that is suppressed by a liberal society. Does Fish mean by "seeing the strong claim" accepting the claim outright? Rather, the suppression of the claim should not be surprising: a liberal society would cease to exist without this suppression. Demanding that a liberal society tolerate not just strong anti-liberal claims but strong anti-liberal deeds is, to use an example that Fish ought to appreciate, like Milton's Satan attempting to be greater than God: it's absurd.

Hence liberalism is "militantly secular" only trivially--i.e., to the extent that it resists forces that would militantly supplant a secular regime in favor a theocratic one. And as Fish notes, today there are many forms of religion that no longer make strong political claims and are perfectly compatible in word and deed with a liberal society. Liberalism may be its own kind of dogma, but it is certainly more tolerant of other dogmas than a standard theocracy; it allows any religious expression up to the point where acceding to the public claims of those dogmas would mean self-destruction. A radical Christian may feel frustrated that they force others to comply with their conception of the good life. But that's as good as it gets barring a collapse of the particular liberal society that prevents him from doing so. On the other hand, he may establish a community where there are private institutions, severe social sanctions, and other factors that approximate close to full expression of their strong claims. Fish is conflating several different senses of "public", and the public-private distinction is not as hard and fast as he makes it out to be. Living within a secular society may be frustrating, but it may not be entirely incompatible even with religions that would under ideal conditions see their strong claims acted upon in full.

Finally, Fish rejects--via Mark Lilla-- the alternatives of demonization and fighting war on the one hand; and conversion or finding common ground on the other. Lilla's flimsy conclusion--that we "cope"--does not really address the problem of the incompatibility of strong-claim religions and liberalism. It is a trite recommendation that we find "moments of mutual self-interest and practical accommodation".

What leads Fish and Lilla to such despair (or is it a nostalgic hope that nihilism not prevail)? The idea is that there isn't an inevitable drift towards secularization, but rather a resurgence of strong-claim religion (example du jour: radical Islam). And yet they provide no empirical evidence for the conclusion that radicalism isn't a symptom of backwardness. We have plenty of evidence to the contrary, including the history of drift towards secularization in Western societies, which Fish and Lilla wish to treat as an exception.

These days I am very wary of the claim that the "theologico-political problem", as Leo Strauss called it, is a persistent problem of tremendous importance--a "crisis" for the West--despite the evidence to the contrary. After all, this is a tremendously self-serving claim for intellectuals to make: if human beings cannot live without strong-claim religion (lest they lapse into nihilism), and such claims are incompatible with liberalism, it is philosophers who must be called into negotiate between faith and reason. We ought to be suspicious of claims that absurdly elevate the political importance of philosophers in this way. I can't help thinking that such positions reflect a secret wish on the part of philosophers that withdrawal from the world in favor of a contemplative life ultimately paradoxically contain its own heroic reversal; that philosophy turn out to be profoundly related to worldly practicalities after all; that these worldly practicalities consist of just the sort of situation that will allow them to swoop down from their ivory perches and, Prospero-like, apply a little rough magic before all is said and done.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Surge as Mythology

That there is a serious discussion of whether or not the Surge in Iraq is a success is a victory for the Bush administration. Because discussing the nature of something requires you believe it to be real. In this case it requires treating as real a complete fiction, a bit of mythology by an administration too weary even to give it the trappings of plausibility. The Bush Administration went into Iraq without enough troops and systematically destroyed the country, its infrastructure, and hence any hope of achieving its own aims. Are we really supposed to believe that anyone else believes that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again? And not by all the king's horses and men, but by just a few extra?

Of course not. Only naive Bush loyalists take this coin at face value, to wit: "but we must try, we must do our best, before we call it a day." If the Surge constituted our best effort, including a plan for military victory in Iraq (with "military victory" defined realistically), it would be worth a try. But like the initial invasion, the Surge is not a plan for military victory but a desperate attempt to shore up the dwindling credibility of the Republican party and the power of a crumbling American regime. Here's the plan for political victory, the real value of the coin:

  1. Delay withdrawal of troops from Iraq for as long as possible and create the impression of a sincere desire to "win" the war
  2. When the withdrawal of troops inevitably comes, blame Iraq as a whole on the defeatism of Democrats and war opposition

(2) can be accomplished whether it comes about as the result of a change in power (a Democratic win in '08) or some other circumstance that gets Bush off the hook. There is a waiting game that necessitates the Surge as a political strategy. How long must Bush wait before he seems sincere about Iraq, despite the beginnings of a troop withdrawal? Long enough that he looks defeated not by Iraq but by internal political opponents who have corrupted the American people. Otherwise he sacrifices the only persona that makes all this failure worthwhile: one that exudes single-minded toughness for as long as possible even in the face of the overwhelming defeatism of the majority. Bush wants out of Iraq; the question is how to save face.

This persistence is especially important in light of the fact that the stated aims of the initial invasion were obviously insincere. The administration's real goal in going to war had nothing to do with WMDs, and everything to do with political power at home and the project of power abroad. Bush adopted the neo-conservative fantasy that the middle east could be conquered and democratized; that it would be easy to begin with a weak and historically precedented target like Iraq; that democratization would reduce the threat of the "Islamist" menace and hence increase our security indirectly. This neocon delusion was coupled to a Bush administration creed: act tough and it will all work out; punish enemies, and reward friends. The United States would project power abroad; the Republican party would project power at home. The former would enable the latter. The latter was obviously a dominant objective--more important, for instance, than such boring pursuits as seeking out bin Laden and al Qaeda operatives in unseen caves where the PR of shock and awe would never see the light of day, or the death of bin Laden benefit Republicans for more than a news cycle.

The tough-guy attitude at the core of this strategy was extended to the very execution of the war: after all, tough guys are cool. They don't fret over practicalities. They just go in and kick ass with limitless American power--punch the jukebox, so to speak. The rest takes care of itself.

It's been well-documented that the Bush administration had a good chance of achieving its aims in Iraq. The administration systematically thwarted its own aims and destroyed Iraq--by using too few troops, refusing to establish basic security in the country, terrorizing the population with heavy-handed tactics, and dismantling its political and administrative infrastructure (including the army and the Ba'ath party). The competent experts who tried to stop all of this were ignored or fired and replaced with inexperienced political beneficiaries. The competence of the experts reeked of disloyalty, because it requires pushing back against hair-brained, politically motivated, and top-down policies in light of realistic facts on the ground. But tough guys don't tolerate disloyalty. The decider must be surrounded by naive followers.

It's not that Bush wanted to fail in Iraq: it's that he wanted to win on terms acceptable to the tough-guy mentality of his party. Again, his goals were not primarily military but political; not designed primarily to help Iraq or the United States, but to help establish the tough image of the Republican party. When you are conducting what is essentially a PR campaign by military means, you can't be expected to pay that much attention to the details of the military means.

This is why the concept of a "Surge" is so insulting. The Bush Administration destroyed Iraq by failing to use enough troops; denied the need for more troops during the years in which they might have been relevant; and then decided that garnishing the ruins of Iraq with a little extra dollop of manpower would be just the right thing; here's 20,000 more--how do things look now? And we're supposed to take that seriously.

But as Glenn Greenwald notes, the punditry do take this seriously. And we have to wonder why, as Glenn does on a regular basis.

Let's revisit our parallel case of charades being taken seriously: the case of WMDs. Years had passed and no one had worried about Iraq's well-known chemical weapons--the ones Hussein couldn't bring himself to use against the U.S. in the first war. It took very little from the government propaganda machine--just the incredible Cheney and Rice talking about "mushroom clouds"--and journalists were acting as if they had just learned of something new and terrifying. It was all taken at face value. One gets the impression that if the government made the claim that Judgement Day was nigh, it would become an object of serious discussion among pundits.

The Surge may be a mythological beast, but it is red meat to the commentariat: in so thoroughly chewing on (rather than in some cases ridiculing and dismissing) every idea that comes their way, they lend even fantastic ideas own kind of reality. People quickly forget that "Surge" is a dog and pony show, a desperate and unsophisticated bit of PR; that in context, even the shallowest minds would never take such an idea seriously. There being an argument about whether the Surge will "work" is like having an argument about whether Santa Claus will be able to deliver all his presents on time. There isn't a Santa Claus, and so of course he can't deliver his presents on time.

In the sense of a real military strategy meant to solve a military problem: there is no Surge. It doesn't exist. So of course it can't work. There are no criteria for it working, and shamefully the few contrived criteria for its effectiveness are being falsified. Serious discussion would require treating the Surge for what it is--a delaying tactic in a larger domestic political strategy.