Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why there's no meaningful debate about the "troop-surge"

The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia occurred because both sides had concluded that the United States supported the idea of a military solution, rather than negotiated power-sharing between the Islamic Courts organization and the so-called interim federal government (IFG). You don't have to take my word for it, it is the well-supported view of John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group (Brussels-based). Unfortunately, the only web-accessible venue for his remarks seems to be Al-Quds al-Arabi, the pan-Arab newspaper published in London.

Of course if you prefer the other approach, you could read the accounts in the NYT over the last few days, where they tell a story of exciting military strategy and with a clear-cut victory for the "government", no mention there of any negotiating option whatsoever.

It is a familiar situation: News of an exciting military victory for our side against the dangerous Islamists, touted by the readily-available NYT, and a less-exciting account, often not circulated at all in America, having to do with the actual alignment of political forces, which you really have to hunt for. Only if you put the two accounts together can you grasp the way in which the Bush administration is confirming and strengthening the anti-American, pan-Arab view, which is that Somalia is being added as the fifth Arab nation to be attacked in this way, after Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Sudan, just for being Arab and Islamic. Ali Muhammed Fakhro, writing on the Al-Quds al-Arabi opinion page yesterday, warned people in other Arab states not to be complacent in 2007: this could happen to your country too. (It's a pdf link; it is the column at the left).

What else is new? What else is new is that the Bush administration is about to order an increase in troop levels in Iraq, and not only does nobody know why, but nobody in the American media asks why, either.

Norwegian historian and Shiite-scholar Reidar Visser yesterday sent to his e-mail subscribers (a free service) a draft op-ed piece, aimed at the American press, setting out what would be really the only rational basis for a troop-surge , and the argument goes like this: Any improvement in Iraqi security would be a boon to all, including all the Iraqi political parties. If the US is able to offer any such improvement, it should be conditioned on a commitment by the political class (particularly the leadership of SCIRI and the two big Kurdish parties) to do what they have so far failed to do, namely make the necessary serious concessions to reconcile Sunni groups to the political process (including points having to do with federalism, de-Baathification, and so on). Doing this publicly would put "pressure from below" on the party leaders, who otherwise feel no such pressure. Without such serious political restructuring, any troop-increase will only mean more of the same (at best).

The logic is impeccable. Visser says he has submitted this to American newspapers but he isn't optimistic about publication. It makes you wonder, but then again, this is the same question, with the same answer, re Somalia. There is an exciting military story about defeat of the Islamic enemy (or in this Iraqi case an imagined futuristic or Bushistic "victory"). And there is an account of the actual alignment of the political forces and the possibilities for negotiated solutions. The latter isn't talked about in America.

The problem isn't really the military excitement, although it certainly helps circulation. The problem is the predetermined outcome: Details in these media stories have to be arranged and/or suppressed in order to show the way to a predetermined outcome. There is no point introducing other alternatives, because that would only leave readers confused, and take away from the authority of the explainer. While the corporate media do this in a sophisticated way, Juan Cole, the big retail purveyor of Iraq news, does it in a less sophisticated way. Here is part of his December 05 Iraq summary:
In Iraq, both the Jan. 30 [2005] election and that of Dec. 15 [also 2005] cemented Shiite fundamentalist political control of the country. The United Iraqi Alliance, now a coalition of all three major religious and political currents among Iraqi Shiites, had 140 seats (a simple majority) in the Jan. 30 elections, and will likely have 130 seats in the new parliament, such that it can easily form a government that can survive votes of confidence requiring 51 percent support for the prime minister. The fundamentalist Shiites got the constitution they wanted on October 15, enshrining strong elements of Islamic law and ensuring that the southern Shiite provinces will control all future petroleum finds in the oil-rich south.
So as of December 2005, the Shiites had "cemented...political control of the country". As for the Sunnis, here is Cole (Dec 4 2006) following the Hakim meeting with Bush earlier this month in Washington: "Despite his ecumenical speeches in Sunni Jordan last summer, al-Hakim frequently urges a hard line against the 'neo-Baathists' and militant Salafi revivalists,i.e., the Sunni Arabs of Iraq." "The Sunni Arabs of Iraq" = neo-Baathists and militant Salafi revivalists, not a very attractive picture. In the last few days, Cole has somewhat relented, and now admits (now that it is US government policy) that the Sunnis have to be negotiated with, because they are what he calls "spoilers". Here is his reasoning (Dec 27): "The guerrilla war is hotter now than at any time since the US invasion. It is more widely supported by more Sunni Arabs than ever before. It is producing more violent attacks than ever before. Since we cannot defeat them short of genocide, we have to negotiate with them." Now he is making some "ecumenical speeches" of his own, educating his readers about the need for a "win-win situation", even if it involves Sunnis. This is several years late, and his very influential sectarian approach has already done its damage.

Gullible readers who have been exposed for years to this sort of thing are naturally going to be very hard-boiled about any concept of cross-sect Iraqi nationalism. So when I quoted Harith al-Dhari (Sunni head of the Muslim Scholars Association) in Istanbul recently on the subject of Sunni-Shiite cooperation, and a commenter expressed consternation, asking if it isn't the case that the "Muslim Scholars have been blowing up Shiites in Sadr City", the commenter then admitted she was a regular Juan Cole reader.

Whether the predetermined outcome is thought of as US-compliant, or Shiite-controlled, the point is that any such approach drains the content out of the story, leaving the reader with cartoon stick-figures and authoritarian assurances of "Informed Comment".

And so it is that when the country is faced with a president, either delusional or malicious, about to order a troop-increase, the country is unable to mount any kind of a rational discussion about the political underpinnings of it. There are only two available organizing ideas: US-compliant regime (NYT); Shiite-controlled regime with Sunni spoiler-status (Informed Comment). The former seems to imply more troops until the desired US-compliant status is reached; the latter suggests troop-withdrawal, but only because that is a demand of the spoiler-group. Neither one of them starts from an even-handed account of the actual alignment of the relevant political forces. It would only confuse readers. And it would take away from the authority and the authoritarianism of whoever is doing the talking.

7 Comments:

Blogger chicago dyke said...

that was really an excellent piece. thank you for making those points. i'll put that up at my blog (correntewire.com)

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW! Welcome back…and back with a bang, I might add. Your analysis of the role of mass median (e.g. the NYT) and blog media (e.g. Cole) on public opinion and policy is outstanding and much appreciated.

One point that I would disagree: you write, “…the Bush administration is confirming and strengthening the anti-American, pan-Arab view, which is that Somalia is being added as the fifth Arab nation to be attacked in this way, after Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Sudan, just for being Arab and Islamic.” These countries are not on the list to be attacked simply because they are Arab and Islamic. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the rest of North Africa, etc. are not on such a list. Rather, they are subject to attack because they obstruct US foreign policy goals and objectives. Thus, Iran which is not Arab and N. Korea with is neither Arab nor Islamic are on the list.

What is very much needed in blog world is some analysis of exactly what those goals and objectives are.

7:43 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Thank you both.
Anonymous, I understand your point, that there is a whole other dimension there. It may sound a little weasel-like but really my point for the moment was just to underling the pan-Arab (for want of a better term) psychology which I think one can sort of appreciate the point of view without necessarily buying into the whole thing.

Analysis of US foreign policy aims and objectives under the Bush administration would certainly be a tough nut to crack, but maybe you mean the more or less permanent aims and objectives...also a tall order

9:10 AM  
Anonymous GJ said...

As the "informed" commenter who made the point about the Muslim Scholars I need to correct a misapprehension:

I have taken an extremely close interest in Iraq since 1979 when I was living in southern Europe at the time Saddam was trying to build nuclear weapons with the help of the French and when he invaded Iran.

That is nearly 30 YEARS of following Iraq in detail. What's your record?

I didn't need Juan Cole to tell me the Baath was a small regime that exercised absolute power over 80% of the country's population for four decades, ferociously suppressing any attempt by Kurds and Shiites to obtain political rights during that period.

And as a dedicated demonstrator against apartheid in the 1960s, the comparison between the Afrikaaners and the Baath regime was not lost on me either. Both regimes comprised only about 15-20% of their respective populations. As a consequence both had to ferociously repress their majorities simply in order to survive.

Given this history, it has been a matter of curiosity to me that large sections of the Left,of which I am a lifetime member, adopted Saddam and the Baath in 1991 as a regime that deserved its protection. And has continued to do so to this very day even though one of Saddam's first acts on taking power was to ruthlessly wipe out the Iraqi Communist Party and trade unions. (See Tariq Ali)

Anyway, Badger, the fact is I only started reading Dr Cole's blog, and yours, a few weeks ago so he has had nil influence on me.

btw - re the Muslim Scholars, could you clear this up for me - is that organisation widely recognised as the political arm of the Baath insurgency or not?

If not, then my comments were misplaced. But if so, do they not share some collective responsibility for having chosen to target the Shiite population instead of co-opting it into a united front to fight the occupiers?

A united front with the Sadrists would have driven the incompetent US military machine out of Baghdad long ago. Chairman Mao would not have made the same mistake.

4:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a commentor writes: “btw - re the Muslim Scholars, could you clear this up for me - is that organization widely recognized as the political arm of the Baath insurgency or not?

If not, then my comments were misplaced. But if so, do they not share some collective responsibility for having chosen to target the Shiite population instead of co-opting it into a united front to fight the occupiers?

A united front with the Sadrists would have driven the incompetent US military machine out of Baghdad long ago. Chairman Mao would not have made the same mistake.”

///
I ask: Why ASSUME that the Baathist would not join with the Sadrists and more importantly why ASSUME they are attacking Shiites. When I write ASSUME I do not mean to imply that I have not read the many media (mass and blog) statements to that effect (e.g. NYT & Cole). But, what is the reality?

My reading of US deaths indicates that the vast majority of them are coming from the so called Sunni Triangle (3 today). So who is fighting the so called occupiers? Certainly not the Shiites.

5:58 PM  
Blogger badger said...

I stand corrected on any Cole influence on you, I wasn't being fair. And I take off my hat to you for your long experience.

However.

My point is that Cole's one-sided approach involves lumping together groups and tendencies on the Sunni side, with a view to discrediting all of them. Our original issue was a statement by al-Dhari about working with Shiites as co-elements in the Iraqi social fabric. You can legitimately ask: Well why hasn't he been successful in forming a national front? Obviously the fact that there is a wave of tie-for-tat group killings has a lot to do with that. I don't think collective responsibility comes into it. And given what little is known about the inner workings of the resistance, it doesn't much matter what the MSA is "widely thought" to be, in terms of labels, except that they support the resistance. I just think the approach of ignoring or rejecting out of hand anything any Sunni group or spokesman says isn't a helpful way to understand this, in fact it distorts the picture, and that was my point about Cole. But I do apologize for dragging you into it.

7:46 PM  
Anonymous GJ said...

Thank you for the handsome apology.

When assessing all politicians, in this case, al-Dhari, it is useful to compare what they are saying to what they are actually doing. That's a hint from long experience!

Congratulations on your blog, it is very good indeed and all the commentators always have something interesting to say.

11:34 PM  

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