Robert Farley raises the politically awkward point that Pentagon calculations of deaths in Iraq don’t count up how many Iraqis are being killed by the American military. Nor, one assumes, are whatever contractor-inflicted casualties that occur being counted. It seems unlikely that General Petraeus has eliminated all human and mechanical error from the war-fighting process.
Some points in the wake of Germany’s apparent foiling of an apparently serious terrorist attack:
- We’re seeing here once again that the big risk factor is the presence of a large, deeply alienated Muslim population in your country. That means the locus of the short-run problem is Western Europe rather than the United States. It also means that we need to put a high premium on understanding the aspects of America that make the country relatively friendly to Muslim integration and strengthen them.
- It seems slightly perverse to worry that an al-Qaeda sanctuary might emerge in some part of Iraq when, right now, there are al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan where it seems these guys trained.
- Stopping terrorist plots turns out to involve an awful lot of police and intelligence work. You can’t take these guys down with a DD(X) or an Osprey or a Raptor.
- It still seems to be the case that nobody is anywhere near approaching the sophistication or lethality of a 9/11-scale plot. Back in the fall of 2001, I, at least, was very afraid that there might be much worse things in the works.
Other than that, who knows? Oftentimes, these stories have ended up looking different a week after the arrests than they did on the day of, but it seems legit to me.
I agree with Robert Farley that America’s involvement in the “Anbar awakening” business needs to be understood as an abandonment of real state-building goals in Iraq, but I’m not sure the name “anti-state building” works. We’re not, after all, building an anti-state. We’re unbuilding the already barely-there Iraqi state. It’s state destruction.
Looking back at it, I always thought this was the flaw in Thomas Ricks’ otherwise brilliant book, Fiasco. In order to highlight the destructive nature of the policies pursued during the early phases of the war, Ricks will often shed light on some localized successes where smart commanders build sound relationships with existing actors. Counterinsurgency done right, in other words. What Ricks never gets into is the question of whether or not such approach ever had any hopes of long-term viability. I tend to have my doubts. The problem is that the local elites over here tended to have visions of Iraq that were incompatible with those of the local elites over there. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs wanted — and by all accounts still want — Sunni supremacy. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Shiite Arabs really did want far-reaching de-Baathification and other anti-Sunni measures.
At any rate, you might think I’m wrong about that counterfactual. Maybe factional feelings wouldn’t have hardened as much if the whole thing had been better-organized in the first place. But I think it’s a reasonable concern. And given that we didn’t organize it that way in the first place, and that feelings have now hardened after years of civil conflict, I think it’s a crucial one. Under the circumstances, Petraeus’ strategy amounts to fueling several of Iraq’s main conflicts.
It’s somehow become incredibly gauche to point this out, but most indications are that either George W. Bush isn’t very bright and doesn’t really understand the issues he’s dealing with. Take this excerpt from Robert Draper’s new book:
“The job of the president,” he continued, through an ample wad of bread and sausage, “is to think strategically so that you can accomplish big objectives. As opposed to playing mini-ball. You can’t play mini-ball with the influence we have and expect there to be peace. You’ve gotta think, think BIG. The Iranian issue,” he said as bread crumbs tumbled out of his mouth and onto his chin, “is the strategic threat right now facing a generation of Americans, because Iran is promoting an extreme form of religion that is competing with another extreme form of religion. Iran’s a destabilizing force. And instability in that part of the world has deeply adverse consequences, like energy falling in the hands of extremist people that would use it to blackmail the West. And to couple all of that with a nuclear weapon, then you’ve got a dangerous situation. … That’s what I mean by strategic thought. I don’t know how you learn that.
Draper’s being mean about the food. But Bush isn’t misspeaking here or making some gaffes. He’s laying out the view that Iran is a strategic threat to a generation of Americans. The nature of this threat is that Iran is a “destabilizing force” and that this destabilizing force is threatening because instability in that part of the world could lead to oil fields coming under the control of “extremist people” who “would use it to blackmail the West.” Long story short, his entire vision of the strategic threat from Iran is driven by fear of the oil weapon.
Do we think Bush has rigorously studied the considerable discussion of this issue in the policy community? After all, for Iran — or even a new “Greater Iran” that’s extended its influence over Iraq — to attempt to blackmail us with its control over oil supplies would be the equivalent of me threatening to chop my head off and then bludgeon you with it. What’s more, as a means of hedging against the risk of Iranian irrationality, massively expensive military engagement in the Persian Gulf seems like a poor choice. Why not instead invest hundreds of billions in alternative energy research? Research that would prove useful not only in the unlikely event that Iran tries to blackmail us, but also just in terms of cleaner air.
A New York Times article on Iran by Michael Slackman argues that we’re seeing an instance of the familiar phenomenon where international isolation and efforts to cripple the Iranian economy are strengthening the hand of hard-liners. There’s a solid case, in my view, for certain kinds of sanctions on Iran where the sanctions in question are narrowly tailored toward the objective of impeding Iran’s nuclear program as such. Broader campaigns of economic warfare, by contrast, don’t really have a great track-record of success.
One sometimes suspects that the best way to topple a repressive regime like the one in Teheran would be to kill it with kindness. A more prosperous Iran would be a country with more and better televisions, computers, radios, cell phones and therefore access to information and ability to disseminate it. It would be a place where people had more money to spare for civil society groups, and perhaps more leisure time available with political — or politicizable — activities. Of course, that’s hardly guaranteed to work either (look at China, or Singapore) but outside of the rather unusual case of South Africa, it’s hard to see this kind of economic coercion persuading a regime to change its nature.
For more limited goals, though, you can imagine it working much better. Hence the fatal ambiguity of America’s policies toward Iran. Getting Teheran to agree to verifiable nuclear disarmament would be extracting a big concession from them. But it wouldn’t threaten the regime in a core way. Economic coercion could work. But if we really do want to move forward on that limited goal, we would need to adopt a posture suggesting that our goals really are limited and that a disarmed Iran would get normal diplomatic recognition, a full end to economic coercion, and a healthy respect for its interests in Iraq and Iran. Most generally, it would mean agreeing to treat Iran as a potential ally of convenience against al-Qaeda rather than as an integral part of some ill-defined “mean Muslims” menace.
The Bush administration has, of course, steadfastly refused to do so. And that’s what makes it so hard to evaluate things like Democratic support for ever-increasing levels of coercion. Those kinds of policies could be good or could be bad all depending on the context. Meanwhile, it’s hard to know what kind of broader context different Democrats see as appropriate since it’s not considered politically wise to talk about things like Iran’s various spurned peace initiatives over the years.