Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about George W. Bush

Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner

(Via Ian Kallen)

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Should We Withdraw From Iraq?

Over the weekend, I finally got ’round to reading a New Yorker article that I’d had my eye on for a while. I’d seen it when the magazine arrived a few weeks ago, but then couldn’t find it, and got distracted by articles in other issues in the meantime, till I finally located it and sat down and read it.

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that I think that the Iraq debacle has been just that. It’s an unmitigated disaster. The lengths to which the current administration has gone to deny the truth, even to itself, have been stunning. This article covered the administration’s resistance to the term “insurgency:”

“They didn’t even want to say the ‘i’ word,” one officer in Iraq told me. “It was the spectre of Vietnam. They did not want to say the ‘insurgency’ word, because the next word you say is ‘quagmire.’ The next thing you say is ‘the only war America has lost.’ And the next thing you conclude is that certain people’s vision of war is wrong.”

One might quibble about this, and disagree, and argue that it is not, in fact, an insurgency that has been challenging our troops in Iraq (never mind the brewing civil war!), but the truth is that those officers in the fields who have embraced the term have been able to catalyze real improvements in Iraq. Why? Because once you accept that you’re dealing with an insurgency, it obviously makes sense to use principles of counterinsurgency in order to affect change.

Such is in fact the lesson of Tal Afar, a city in the northwestern desert of Iraq, “a place that was being called the next Falluja” when command of the city was taken over by Colonel H. R. McMaster, author of Dereliction of Duty. McMaster led the counterinsurgency effort Iraq by setting an example at Tal Afar. In the last year he has achieved some success at it–and I say “some success” because the nature of counterinsurgency effort is to be very gradual. It comes from slowly building up trust with the people with whom you work, including those tied to the insurgents:

The classic doctrine, which was developed by the British in Malaya in the nineteen-forties and fifties, says that counterinsurgency warfare is twenty per cent military and eighty per cent political. The focus of operations is on the civilian population: isolating residents from insurgents, providing security, building a police force, and allowing political and economic development to take place so that the government commands the allegiance of its citizens. A counterinsurgency strategy involves both offensive and defensive operations, but there is an emphasis on using the minimum amount of force necessary.

Thanks to McMaster’s leadership, there is now a tenuous peace in Tal Afar, and things are developing, but it crucially relies on the presence of American military personnel to maintain order. Because without order, peace and justice are luxuries. So what does the military plan to do next at Tal Afar? McMaster and his units will be sent home, their tour of duty complete, and US responsibility in Tal Afar turned over to new troops who have no experience there. This is bound to be detrimental to the effort, as the counterinsurgency doctrine requires deep familiarity with disputing parties, and vice versa. Without trust, the whole thing falls apart, and trust takes a great deal of time and effort to develop.

All of this is a long way to getting to my point. Unlike most liberals, I think, I am quite certain that we should not be pushing so hard to get our troops out of Iraq now. The fact that the Administration–particularly Rumsfeld–is pushing so hard in that direction should give us pause.

I was deeply opposed to the war from the outset, and dubious as to our prospects for the occupation (especially given President Bush’s outspoken opposition to nation building). I seriously expected this administration to fuck it up, and hoped that I was mistaken. I wish I had been wrong. But now that we’ve gone in there and made a horrible mess of things, we have a responsibility to make things right–or as right as we can. And only in the last six months have some folks with good heads on their shoulders started to make a difference there. When we invaded, we took on a huge responsibility, and abruptly leaving the country to disintegrate into civil war just as we’re starting to make serious progress is abandoning that responsibility, not to mention the people we set about to “make free.”

And need I point out that it’s in our best interests to make good on our promises in Iraq? If we leave, the country will dissolve into civil war. And if the lessons of Afghanistan tell us anything, it is that a country at civil war breeds terrorism. Iraq would be worse, because we’re more directly to blame for the situation there. We made the country unstable, angered a lot of people, and now we’re talking about getting out?

I think that that we need to enlist the help of our allies (those we have left), increase the allied presence in Iraq, train the people there in the principles of counterinsurgency, and make things right. Any other choice, as far as I can see, would be disaster.

I’m not the only one. I leave you with this last tidbit from the article (though you really should read the whole thing for yourself):

Kenneth Pollack, who served on the National Security Council under President Clinton—and whose book “The Threatening Storm” made an influential case for the war in 2002—recently led a small group at the Brookings Institution in writing a detailed report on a new strategy for Iraq. It calls for the Administration to shift the focus from the pursuit of insurgents in the Sunni heartland and, instead, to concentrate overstretched American and Iraqi forces in cities where the reconstruction effort is still somewhat popular—providing security while allowing economic development to flourish. This strategy, known in counterinsurgency doctrine as the “ink spot” approach (because zones of security gradually spread out from population centers), has also been proposed by the military expert Andrew Krepinevich. It was put into practice in Tal Afar. Pollack’s proposal demands that, in spite of intense political pressures at home, there be no troop withdrawals anytime soon, since the total number of American and Iraqi forces is now only half of what experts say is required to secure the country. It also counts on a level of international help that the Bush Administration has never shown the ability, or the desire, to muster. In a sense, the report asks the country to offer the same commitment and imagination, to take the same risks and make the same sacrifices, as the soldiers in Tal Afar.

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Reframing the Debate

In light of the election results, I’ve been reflecting on what needs to happen next. I started by thinking about how I’d like to reclaim the word “liberal” for use by the left in general, and Democrats in particular. Hendrik Hertzberg said something interesting about this on “Fresh Air” back in July:

Terry Gross: How do you think the word “liberal” has changed in meaning?

Hertzberg: It has been diabolized by the right, unfortunately. It’s a wonderful, perfectly good word. It’s rooted in “liberty.” It has changed so much that if you go back to 1952, when Richard Nixon gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, when he was nominated for Vice President, the whole beginning of his speech was an argument that the Republicans–that he, Nixon, and Eisenhower, the Republicans–were the real liberals. In those days, “liberal” was a word that everybody wanted to have attached to him, and even Robert Taft would pay homage to that word. I think it was a mistake for liberals to let go of that word. I think it’s a much better word than, say, the word “progressive”, because liberty is a better value than progress in my book.

Remembering this discussion, I started thinking about how we might reclaim the word, and this led me to ponder on how the right, starting with Reagan, turned it into a bad word. How did they do it? Well, they changed it from an adjective (“the liberal candidate”) to a noun (“he’s a liberal”). They managed this by applying adjectives to the adjective (but not in the adverbial sense), so we got “card-carrying liberal”, “tax and spend liberal,” and so on. Perhaps, I thought, we just need to apply different adjectives to it in our day-to-day usage, such as “freedom-loving liberal.”

But that’s not too strong, is it? Perhaps we could instead borrow the right’s idea of recasting a common word with a negative connotation. Maybe we could start applying adjectives to other adjectives, such as “conservative.”

I started pondering on what it means to be conservative. It used to be that conservatives had a core set of values that were primarily focused on reducing the size of government. To do so, they wanted to lower taxes in order force lower spending on programs. But it was also important to them to keep the budget balanced. Tax cuts had to come hand-in-hand with reduced spending, because otherwise budget shortfalls would just pass debt on to our children, who would then have to pay more taxes. And in the meantime, the size of government would not actually be reduced.

This changed, as near as I can tell, during the Reagan administration. Here was a conservative president who, for the first time, cut taxes but increased spending. Spending on defense and weapons research shot way up in order to beat the Soviet Union in the so-called “arms race.” Whether or not the arms race was a justifiable policy in our attempt to “win” the “cold war,” when it was accompanied by tax cuts, it gave rise to a new type of conservative, the slash and burn conservative.

And George W. Bush is the biggest slash and burn conservative of them all. Even as he slashed taxes on the richest 1% of the population, he burned through the $237 billion budget surplus (projected by the Congressional Budget Office to accumulate to $5.6 trillion between 2002 and 2011) in near record time, and added to it the current $477 billion budget deficit (expected to accumulate to $5.2 trillion over the next ten years). Ten trillion dollar is a lot, but a slash and burn conservative always believes that there’s money to burn.

Where did this budget shortfall come from? After all, tax breaks alone won’t lead to a deficit when you have the kind of surplus we were expecting in 2000. How has President Bush burned through so much cash in such a short time? Well, it seems that he’s a slash and spend conservative. He found new programs to spend the (nonexistent) money on, such as an incredibly expensive war in Iraq. Indeed, if Bush is the first “CEO President,” as he likes to style himself, then he must be of the Ken Lay Ilk: he’s the Enron president!

I mentioned some of these ideas to Nat yesterday, and before I could get them out, fully formed, he pointed me to a new book from George Lakoff entitled, Don’t think of an Elephant. Salon has a good article describing the book, and it does seem that Lakoff (whose work, I was amused to realize, I read in college when I was getting my MA in Anthropology) is arguing the same thing as I, only with robust tie-in to how people think and process information.

It’s all about reframing the debate, to borrow Lakoff’s terminology. The right has been so good at making a self-contained argument into a single catch-phrase–such as “Clear Skies,” “Healthy Trees,” “partial-birth abortion,” and “death tax”–that makes it easy for people to digest, so that they feel that they understand an issue just from the turn of phrase. We in the left need to follow suit, to find the self contained arguments in the clever turn of phrase. I’m going to do some more thinking on this, to find other ways to reframe the debate.

For too long, the right has defined the terms of the debate, and as the left has responded to them, they have lost, because you can’t refute them. We need to reframe the debate by defining the terms and forcing the right to respond to those terms. The only way this can be done is if we use a few really good ones for core issues, and get them into widespread use, repeated over and over, for the next four years. We need a daily talking points memo to outline the discourse and organize the left, to get us all “on message,” so that people get the message.

Think you’re tired of the phrase “flip-flopper”? Get ready to hear more about our slash and spend president. Ad nauseam.

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Howard Fineman's “Analysis”

My father-in-law, Steven, sent me this link to a Newsweek column by Howard Fineman. Like Steven, I thought it very interesting that a conservative columnist would be basically saying that the election is all but over for Bush, given the past week’s news. But the funny thing is, I didn’t know that Fineman was conservative until I read that column. What gave it away?

It was this snippet:

On one level, Kerry’s “position” is a contradictory bundle of confusion. He says the war was a mistake, but he’s the guy calling for a gung-ho strategy in Fallujah to root out terrorist nests. As the president has pointed out, Kerry is claiming he can win the support of allies even as he dismisses the contributions of existing ones and calls the entire war a diversion–and even as France and Germany already have said that they aren’t going to rally to our side if Kerry wins. But if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, Kerry’s “vision”–or lack of it–matters less.

This seems typical of conservative commentary–it’s a very selective description of Kerry’s position. Yes, Kerry says that the war was a mistake, but now that we’re in it, we need to do it right, including getting tough on rooting out the terrorists (who, by the way, only came into the country after the war started). Kerry has not dismissed the contributions of existing allies, but has pointed out that, unlike Desert Storm, this coalition is far from evenly divided. As Edwards repeatedly said during the Veep debate, the US bears 90% of the cost among the coalition members, both in terms of dollars and in terms of lives. There is no contradiction in these statements. The contradiction only comes up if they’re used selectively and outside of appropriate contexts.

I am so sick of this hypocrisy! I keep telling people, I can’t wait to be disappointed in Kerry’s presidency, as I was with Clinton’s. I’ll take disappointment over being offended by the President and his apologists any day!

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Bush Uses Radio Receiver During Debate?

HOLY SHIT!

According to a story in Salon.com, it appears that George W. Bush may well have been wearing a radio transmitter during the first debate. This would be so that he could get prompts from someone more knowledgeable (Dick Cheney?).

Current Electoral Vote Predictor (which currently shows Kerry leading 280 to 239!) has confirmed the presence of “the bulge” with this image, using Red Hawk image intensification software.

My favorite phrase from the Salon.com article: the “Milli Vanilli president.”

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