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Monday, July 25, 2005

Vox Populi is usually wrong

I remember the arrogance that accompanied the "shock and awe" bombing campaign that kicked off the war in Iraq more than two years ago. The war was supposed to be quick and easy, a cakewalk. The enemy, we were told, would fold like a dinner napkin. And then, in the neoconservative fantasies of some of the crazier folks in the Bush crowd, the military would gear up for an invasion of Iran.

One of the largest tragedies of the Iraq war is that it was sold so poorly. The Bush administration, at the time, seemed to be underestimating the country and so they broke down the war to one of immediacy: Weapons of Mass Destruction and promises that the war would go smoothly and Iraq would allow its democratic underpinings blossom in the wake of Saddam's overthrow. This is a criticism, however, of the promises made prior to the war: not the war itself. This column, by Bob Herbert, is one instance where the "liberal" (Gen-X) segments of the media try to conflate the two. The tacit argument, in its most basic form, is "The administration stated X prior to the war, ergo the ultimate justification for the war must be whether X is true or not true." There seems to be a disconnect there, and one that I never have heard addressed.

In one of the great deceptions in the history of American government, President Bush insisted to a nation traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks that the invasion of Iraq was crucial to the success of the so-called war on terror.

"Some have argued that confronting the threat from Iraq could detract from the war against terror," said Mr. Bush in a speech in the fall of 2002 that was designed to drum up support for the invasion. "To the contrary, confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror."

I know that it's popular to say things like "After 9/11 everything has changed," mostly because someone in the media seems to say it every nine seconds, and has been for four years now - but seriously, in November of 2002, it's hard to say there was still a level of shock that undercut people's ability to rationally consider the war. If people are too stupid to listen to what Bush said, dissect it rationally, and either accept or reject his premise (especially with columnists like Herbert 'helping' them interpret), then why does Bush, or any president, have an obligation to even attempt to justify it to the people? If his supposition is that the populice can't think independantly enough to make their own decisions about the war, then it begs the question of what 'deception' Bush was perpetrating - that fighting Iraq would weaken the infrastructure that supports terrorism? I'll get more to this later, but does anyone actually believe that a country whose leader paid suicide bombers was staunchly anti-terrorist?

In the speech, delivered in Cincinnati, Mr. Bush said of Iraq: "It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons."

I've always urged politicians to be careful what they wish for. The president got the war he wanted so badly. But he never understood an essential fact that Georges Clemenceau learned nearly a century ago - that "it is easier to make war than to make peace."

So where are we, now that the real world has intervened? The military is spinning its wheels in the tragic and expensive quagmire of Iraq and there is no end to the conflict in sight. A front-page story in The Times on Sunday said the insurgents "just keep getting stronger and stronger."

Let's think this one through, since the Times is now quoting itself as a source. Insurgents, even if we hadn't killed any of them, are using their resources. They have no in-country resources to draw upon. So if they are, in fact, getting 'stronger and stronger' then it seems to indicate that they are getting aid from other countries. So there are then two things that one can believe. Either this is money and human capital that would not have gone towards terrorism or other illicit activities, or it's money that countries like Syria and Iran are diverting from their own treasuries in order to fund the insurgency. With regard to money, it's possible that the amount the insurgency is willing to spend from Saudi Arabia's coffers is large enough that the amount being spent here is insignificant. But there really are only so many people who are going to be willing to die senselessly if they do not see progress being made. Remember when Spain pulled out of Iraq in the wake of the Madrid bombings? Quiz: Was the followup to that (a) sated terrorists who no longer wanted to fight, happy that Spain met their demands or, (b) ETA bombings. If you answered "b", good work. Concessions do actually embolden terrorists, and since we're not going to exhaust the insurgents' finances, defeating the object of their campaign at its inception and deflating their morale is the only viable path.

If, on the other hand, you believe as most Americans that the insurgency and terrorist groups are just insane Muslims with no regard to life or their state of being, then nothing is going to stop them, and why not try to do right by Iraq (who, by the way, we kind of owe after 1993) and give them some liberty?

As for the fight against terror, the news runs the gamut from bad to horrible. The Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik in Egypt was traumatized by a series of early-morning terrorist blasts on Saturday. London is trembling from the terror attacks on its public transportation system that have claimed dozens of lives.

Here in New York, where the police have begun random searches of the backpacks and packages of subway riders, there is an odd feeling of resignation mixed with periodic bouts of dread, as transit riders struggle with the belief that some kind of attack is bound to happen here.

Interviews over the past few days have shown that subway riders in New York almost instinctively understand what the president does not - that the war in Iraq is not making us safer here at home.

Equivocation. If Israel makes an incursion into Palestinian controlled territory to apprehend suspects involved in a terrorist attack, that technically makes the individuals charged with the unsavory task of aquiring the individuals less "safe" in the sense that they are entering hostile territory. It even creates the possibility of retaliation. Likewise, if the DEA goes to arrest someone who is dealing drugs in an inner city neighborhood, they are opening up denizens of the neighborhood up to potential stray bullets, as well as creating the possibiltiy that one or more will be taken hostage. None of these are reasons to say that, in the long run, allowing Palestinian bombings or drug rings to continue without response makes anyone "safer." By increasing expected danger in the short term, you decrease the long term risk and allow for a safer and better country or neighborhood or world in the long run.

"No, in fact I think it makes us less safe here," said Edmond Lee, a salesman who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "We went over there with no real plan. No real thinking about what we'd be able to do."

He said he was concerned that "what happened in the London Underground might happen here."

Well, I mean, if after a lot of late night sessions with the joint chiefs of staff and brainstorming with the Secretary of Defense, Edmond Lee, Salesman extraordinaire, doesn't think we had a plan, I guess we didn't. Unless, and I know this might be crazy, the military didn't publish its plan of attack in advance for any number of reasons - but that's just crazy. Moreover, why would you do that at all, ever? By setting arbitrary timelines, you are just setting yourself up for failure. By setting short-term goals along the way, you can adapt to the situation rather than trying to will it into being what you want it to be. And by the way, we've met the majority of our short-term goals, including basically fair and free elections and the creation of a constitutional commission.

Memories of the destruction of the World Trade Center are still etched, as if with acid, in the minds of New Yorkers. Very few people are dovish when it comes to the war on terror. But Mr. Bush's war in Iraq is another matter.

"Our soldiers being over there make it worse here," said Michael Springfield, a 32-year-old engineer from Brooklyn.

Another top-notch expert in the field gives us his informed opinion. I suppose Springfield, who seems to have no professional experience in National Security, is pretty in-tune to what the intelligence apparatus is picking up.

One of the people encountered in the subway was Andy Dommen, a musician from Germany who was pushing a shopping cart filled with luggage. He made the fundamental distinction between Iraq and Al Qaeda and said the war in Iraq was a distraction that "was taking the public eye off" other important problems, namely the fight against terror.

"Messing up other countries," said Mr. Dommen, "doesn't make the world or America safer."

A "musician"? A shopping cart filled with "luggage"? Let me guess, his piss-stained brown coat was "vintage"? Has anyone else been in the New York subway system and seen someone casually pushing their Gucci luggage around in a bloody shopping cart? No? Maybe that's becuase Andy Dommen is a fucking bum. So I guess if a crazy German subway bum who plays the bucket so commuters will give him enough spare change to buy a jug of cheap vodka doesn't think the war isn't making us safer, well then, God damnit, I think we ought to pull out now. I mean seriously - a homeless guy? The Times accepts "Homeless Joe, Ridin' the Rails" as a source now? And also - if we're calling this guy a "musician" who just happens to use a shopping cart as a means of travel, can I start counting the Heroin dealer in the stairwell at the Metro as "a chemist who volunteers part-time at a needle exchange"?

And even the quote. "Messing up other countries." Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have the new "Clash of Civilizations." Messing them up? Wow.

There is still no indication that the Bush administration recognizes the utter folly of its war in Iraq, which has been like a constant spray of gasoline on the fire of global terrorism. What was required in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was an intense, laserlike focus by America and its allies on Al Qaeda-type terrorism.

Instead, the Bush crowd saw its long dreamed of opportunity to impose its will on Iraq, which had nothing to do with the great tragedy of Sept. 11. Many thousands have paid a fearful price for that bit of ideological madness.

Not for nothing, but what do people like Herbert think creates the atmosphere for terrorism? Syria, Iran et al. have been exploiting Israel's existance for decades as a distraction that allows them to rampantly abuse their own citizens. These countries, even when they are not funding the attacks directly, are responsible for the atmosphere that fosters Al Qaeda. Remember "draining the swamp"? Guess what - places like Iraq pre-war and all of the other lovely terrorist states that have been propped up for fifty years are the swamp, and no culturally relativist idiocy is going change that fact. As long as there are states where leaders openly offer rewards for terrorism, claim that the very oppression they are creating is caused by the west, and turn a blind eye as twelve of their citizens hijack planes to fly into buildings halfway around the world - terrorism will continue to be a global epidemic.

By turning Iraq into a nascent democracy in an Arabic country, the US can provide a model for democratization for other places with oppressed peoples. It gives the US a base of operations from which to work in the Middle East. If you don't want to see this endevor as a piece of the "war on terror," see it as an outgrowth of the Cold War. After all, the way most of these countries were able to militarize and stick around for so long was that the alternative was a global Soviet tyranny. Now we're reaping the consequences, but what other course of action do we have? Who believes that if left alone, Saddam Hussein would have simply given up peacefully? The extent to which he was given breathing room over the past decade was the extent to which he abused that freedom to act. Even independantly of a war on terror, Saddam posed a threat - even if it wasn't a substantial one in the present - and the argument that we should wait until he can kill a million people before we decide to act is ludicrous.

What we're doing reduces the long-term danger the world faces by creating stability in a volatile, and historically war-like society. Should we elect not to do it now, we will have to do it eventually - and the Brits who have taken this as a call to cowardice should understand that the best course of action is solidarity and swift, decicive action now rather than later. What Herbert doesn't understand is that reducing the chances of an attack in total, over the course of a century sometimes involves increasing it marginally over the short term. And that's how foreign policy ought to be conducted - not on the recommendation of an Engineer from Brooklyn, nor from a clueless columnist from the New York Times.

(Bob Hebert's Column here.)

cranked out at 6:26 AM | |

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