Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How the big blogs mislead you

It is usually when events clearly echo something people recognize, such as the hints of an American-sponsored coup (against Maliki this time), or the Iran-weapons-killing-our-boys charges, that commenters rise up to say "no more American-sponsored coups", or "here we go again with the unsubstantiated weapons charges in preparation for a war". Those are the things that are easily recognized, so you will find that they percolate up to the high-traffic blogs. It is a pattern that leads to facile understanding, namely that there are evil coup-plotters and war-mongering propagandists in Baghdad and Washington. Very true as far as it goes.

The problem is that short-cutting to this kind of evil-agent explanation not only passes over the underlying dynamics, but it also creates an atmosphere of political correctness that deters honest discussion.

One example: Sunni resistance literature of all types is full of references to the need for fighting the "double occupation" of Iraq, by the United States on the one hand and Iran on the other. So when the American military arms and assists Sunni groups, whether tribal- or resistance-factional based, for the purpose of fighting AlQaeda, they are at the same time helping to foster a mood of empowerment among these Sunni groups. While the Americans may think they can manage the question of their loyalty or otherwise to the American forces, what about the Iranians? If you belong to a movement that is fighting two occupiers, and one of those occupiers arms and assists you, it seems logical that you would use some of that windfall to step up the fight against the other occupier. The result: Heightened Iraq-Iran conflict, and a big step forward on the road to Iraq-Iran war or at the very least Iraq civil war.

While the "coup bad" and "war-mongering bad" ideas make their way up to the high-traffic blogs, the problem is that there are key factors that don't percolate up in the information food-chain. One is this point that the Sunni resistance is fighting two occupations, American and Iranian. This is actually a politically incorrect thing to say, because if Cheney heard you say it, he might use it to juice up his Iran-war campaign. So the result is that the arming of Sunni groups is represented as a case of American mucking about in an unfocused manner in an ongoing and futile attempt to have some kind of pragmatic domestic balance of violence.

On the contrary. Only when you overcome the fear of political incorrectness and realize that the Sunni armed groups are also fighting an Iranian occupation as well as an American one, will you be in a position to understand the connection between what the American military is doing now in Iraq and the coming confrontation with Iran.

Here is another example. American attacks on Sadrist strongholds have given Iraqis the clearest possible proof that Maliki is incapable of protecting his political allies, and one result has been a definitive split between Sadr and Maliki, contributing to the Maliki-crisis. This was the result of American military policy, directed against a movement whose main declared enemy is the American occupation. That's one factor in the Maliki-crisis. Another is the disaffection of the Sunni political parties that have been participating in the "political process", who have recently been witnessing the US go outside the "political process" in arming other, potentially rival, Sunni groups. Recall the bizarre visit of Maliki recently to Tikrit, of all places, to try and solicit tribal leaders to fill in for the IAF. So the Maliki-crisis is the result, in important ways, of American military policy: targeting Sadr, and arming non-government Sunni groups. So to focus on "opposing another American-supported coup" is to really to lose sight of the whole issue, which is American military policy leading up to this.

Here again political incorrectness plays its role, in a peculiar form. The blog-correctness is that American policy in Iraq is a shambles, without rime or reason, incoherent, a "failure", with no legitimate party to support, and this is the strongest justification for "withdrawal". But this is the narrowest form of political correctness imaginable because it puts any substantive criticism beyond the pale. Substantive criticism of the attacks on Sadr would be met with Sadr-bashing. And it seems the need to fight AlQaeda in any possible way serves as a bulwark against criticism of the arming of non-government Sunni groups. So "Sadr bad" and "AlQaeda bad" serve as building blocks for a position that says: Fighting the bad guys in Iraq is fine in isolation, but in context it is incoherent, because there is no party to support: So withdraw. Just as evil agents in Washington plot coups and spread propaganda; evil agents in Iraq kill indiscriminately. The heck with both of them: Withdraw.

This idea that US policy in Iraq is "incoherent" depends on suppressing important Iraq-domestic factors, for instance: (1) that the Sunni resistance is resistance to two occupations, one of them Iranian, so arming them is promoting confrontation with Iran. (2) that driving Sadr out of the Maliki government was a polarizing policy, hence aimed in the same direction. But underlying all of this is the bedrock of misunderstanding, namely the suppression of the fact there is such a thing as a right to resist foreign armed occupation, and that there is such a resistance in Iraq. I have yet to see where American progressives recognize that right, and certainly the failure to recognize the aims and aspirations of its proponents is a recipe for all kinds of spinoff misunderstandings. The most important of which, at the moment, is the failure to see how American policy in Iraq, far from being incoherent, is on a straight road to confrontation with Iran.


Anonymous Alison said...

The latest twist in US policy in Iraq – co-opting elements who constituted the soft underbelly of the Resistance and doling out huge sums of money to corruptible Sunni tribal leaders has a potentially much more sinister and damaging dimension, as the following report dating from mid June indicates:

Tribal Leader in Anbar Accuses Anbar Salvation Council of Forming Secret Police to Conduct Assassinations:

A tribal leader in Anbar, western Iraq, accused the Anbar Salvation Council of conducting secret operations to assassinate Iraqi resistance leaders from outside Al-Qaeda and other well-known figures and former army officers, according to Quds Press.

The source, who refused to be named, told the news agency on Tuesday that the Anbar Salvation Council was initially formed to combat the extremist group Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which earned it the backing of powerful tribal leaders in the governorate. “Recent events, however, suggest that the tribal coalition has turned into a tool for the sectarian government in Baghdad and U.S. occupation forces to be used for assassination operations aiming to distort the image of the Iraqi resistance,” the source said.

The tribal coalition formed a secret police to assassinate leading figures in Iraqi insurgent groups, particularly the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and then blame them on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Anbar Salvation Council militants also assassinated several former army officers in Fallujah, and carried out suspicious activities in the city, such as the mortar shelling of residential areas, which cannot be blamed on insurgent groups, since they have controlled the city for a long period of time without any such incidents, the source said.

The source also described the council as a “band of opportunists,” adding that its main leader, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who is currently in Jordan, has received large sums of money from SIIC leader, Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, and from Muqtada Al-Sadr….


8:53 AM  
Blogger badger said...

That kind of obscures my point which was that (quite apart from any black-ops or false-flag allegations) the policy itself coheres in a bad way.

(I could have described this as another vice of the blogs: The tendency to let anecdotal one-upmanship replace the exposition of rational argument).

10:34 AM  
Anonymous b. said...

Hi badger,

it would be helpful if you would name those "high-traffic blogs" and cite them.

Right now, you are delivering a strawman argument.

That said, of course the U.S is trying to divide and conquer.

If U.S. progressive blogs don't call it out on that, its because "progressive" in the U.S. is mildly rightwing everywhere elese. Still - to call for withdrawal is good, to critzise the reason for that call, well ... why?

12:06 PM  
Blogger badger said...

(1) Of course I was not referring to you, Bernard my friend

(2) It is great that a lot of people recognize and criticize bogus weapons charges and coup-planning, and I don't think you need my help finding big blogs that highlight those issues (you could start with Cole and the people who cite him and work from there...) It is also great that people call for withdrawal, whether for reasons moral, or military, or because the astrological signs are wrong, or what have you.

(3) My point was not about to repeat the general cliche about the US "divide and conquer" approach.

(4) My point is that if all you are doing is to seize on the the highly-saleable points that are familiar from recent history (hoked up weapons charges; US-sponsored coups), and at the same time abandon any analysis of what is going on in the country, then you haven't helped people understand, which is what these blogs purport to be doing. And the analysis you are skipping over and suppressing relates, in one way or another, to the resistance. How it sees the world; attempts to manipulate it; and so on. So as I noted at the end of the post, the bedrock problem is failure to recognize the resistance at all.

12:59 PM  
Blogger dancewater said...

I agree that they are on a road to confrontation with Iran, however, like the road to confrontation with Iraq - it will take a long while before there is straight out US bombing - and even longer for US invasion. They will wait until the Iranians are quite weak, just like they did for Iraqis (turns out they weren't weak enough, but I never would claim these guys are smart).

So, on this road of getting Iraqis to kill Iraqis and Muslims to kill Muslims, there could be twists and turns, and maybe, if we are lucky, a return to good sense. Or at least muted killing, like Bill Clinton's.

It seems they want the whole Middle East up in flames. And it is working.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Vladimir said...

Badger, I accept the gist of what your saying but you should note that most blogs also refuse to credit the Iranians for the brilliance of their strategy. They have effectively used their influence among the Shites to corner the Americans into coperation with their client SIIC and/or confrotation with their client al-Sadr. A move against Iran itself is in a sense a way of breaking out of this dilemma. By the way do u consider Marc Lynch a high traffic blogger because his coverage has been I think insightful and honest.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Alison said...

Badger, my comment – posted in haste from my desk at work – was not intended to obscure your point, but to flag up the fact that the latest trend in US policy in Iraq, which has gathered momentum at an alarming pace under Petraeus, is potentially the most dangerous yet for the Resistance. Some US commenters, and even some Iraqis on the outer fringes of the Resistance, have portrayed the arming – and registration! - of Sunni fighters as a victory of sorts for the “Sunni insurgency” when it is quite the reverse. (The US prepared the ground for this move by empowering Shiite militias and then using moles to sow dissension between resistance factions.)

The policy of co-opting former Sunni fighters and bribing tribal Sheikhs makes perfect sense from the US point of view. Having failed to co-opt them via the Iraqi puppet government, which is more beholden to Iran than the US, it has simply bypassed a government which it intends to unseat in due course, and co-opted them itself. The aim is to integrtate these forces into the security apparatus of a future quisling government – one led by Allawi for instance.

1:21 AM  
Anonymous Alison said...

POSTSCRIPT Re arming Sunni fighters.

Badger, the broader background to this is surely the longer-term US strategy of redefining the Iraqi National Resistance, struggling for the full restoration of political and economic sovereignty and the dismantling of all US bases, as a mere ‘Sunni insurgency’, fighting to capture a significant slice of power in a client government.

It is always difficult to fight a battle on two fronts simultaneously – in this case against the double US-Iranian occupation – and the US have been systematically exploiting this weakness for the last two years or more.

The principled and politically aware forces at the heart of the Iraqi National Resistance will never fall into the trap set by the US, but the same cannot be said for those on the fringes - regrettably.

2:43 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Thank you all for the thoughtful comments. On Vladimir's point about the role of Iranian strategizing, this is a complete blind spot for me, and I wonder whether anybody knows of Farsi readers who do a little of what Marc Lynch (and I to a limited degree) try to do with Arabic news, so one could get a better idea of what the internal debates and so on are about? On his other point, my criticism was directed at the really high-traffic blogs like Cole and the netroots bigshots who put so much time and effort into making sure they don't develop any real understanding, heaven forbid anyone would think I was including Lynch in that !

On Alison's comments: While people have noted that the coopted US-armed Sunni fighters could or will help fuel a Sunni-Shiite war, her point that they could also serve as an ad hoc militia network for a quisling government (led by Allawi, say) is an interesting one and worth paying attention to, especially in the light of all this ridiculing of the prospect of a coup.

I thought Dancewater's remarks were interesting too, for this reason, that the farther away you get from America, and the closer to Iraq, the more the protagonist in this ceases to be just the Bush administration, and becomes more about America itself.

4:43 AM  
Anonymous Steve & Molly said...

Hi Badger,

First of all, thank you for giving us such a high profile post last week; we are very grateful:)

You are absolutely right to point to the refusal by Western (not only American) bloggers and commentators to fully recognize the legitimacy of an Iraqi right to resist. Perhaps it stems from a superior culturalism as much as anything and a contributory factor is certainly a lack of a political agenda that we can understand and get behind; some vision of the future that would be a beacon of hope for Iraq and its people.

This refusal sends people off in all sorts of directions that culminate in over-thinking the situation rather than just facing a reality of armed opposition to foreign occupation (which, as you correctly point out, is seen as a bi-directional challenge).

In the absence of any political movement that could bring about some kind of negotiated settlement commentators tend to just make it up. We have heard constantly over the past four years that the fighters were Ba'ath or Sunni revanchists struggling for a return to power and privilege and refusing to face the new reality of Iraq. Latterly of course we have the desire to form a Caliphate in the center of Iraq. It should be noted that all of these are US administration talking points and don't really stand up to any kind of analytical scrutiny.

The Ba'ath is finished and do not represent anything that most Iraqi's - of any sect or ethnic group - wish to re-live. Most Sunni Arabs understand and accept that the days of minority rule are over (three of the people we spoke to for MR were Shi'a fighting in the "Sunni insurgency") and the idea that a few hundred hard-core nostalgics will ever be able to carry the day in any post-occupation society that has based its struggle on a vision of non-sectarian national unity is just laughable. What we discovered - and for all sorts of reasons believe it to be representative - was a quite reasonable but harshly principled stance against occupation and anything that has come along with it.

There is much talk about the leadership of the resistance groups Who are they? What are they? What do they want? But this is totally irrelevant and the failure to understand the unimportance of "leadership" in the context of Iraqi resistance has probably allowed the "talking points" to gain traction.

By the end of 2003 there were believed to be about 70 Imams in Abu Ghraib having been arrested for preaching Jihad in the mosque. The US military believed they occupied a leadership position when, in fact, they were simply doing the job of articulating the beliefs of their congregations. Had they not been doing so they would have been replaced by another Imam who more clearly understood his role. As with the Imam's, so with all forms of leadership.

For an individual to acquire a position of leadership he must be already traveling a path the fighters have chosen. If he veers from that path, he loses his following and probably is life. This was a supreme factor in the spontaneous nature of the initial group formation and must be taken into account when looking at reports of “leaders” stepping forward to negotiate with the US. Many of these reports have been credible in their inclusion of the pre-condition of a withdrawal of occupation forces but have not been taken seriously by Western commentators who see them only as a blow-hard demand for the unconditional surrender of the coalition. Similarly, observers of current events make far too much of the significance of the US military co-opting some groups to fight against others. There may be internal or intra-group differences but, ultimately, the fight against the occupation is most likely to continue unabated.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous J Thomas said...

Suppose for a moment that the US strategy really is incoherent. Then they will do more-or-less random things and we will find the most cunning interpretations we can. We'll make them look pretty smart.

Our military is designed to allow initiative by subordinates, down to the lieutenant level and even below. This makes us far more effective at war, because lower-level units can recognise and exploit opportunities that would vanish by the time the higher-ups hear about them. They can report their initial successes in time to get support.

If we follow this approach on a higher level then we'll get a whole lot of opportunistic approaches, many of them contradicting others. We'll try to capitalise on the ones that appear to be working. Any attempt to predict our long-term strategy will depend on what looks most workable, because there isn't any long-term strategy except opportunism.

Things would naturally lead up to conflict with iran. Any initiative that fails can use the excuse that the evil iranians foiled it. The strategist can use that excuse, it wasn't his fault he didn't anticipate and block the iranian action because nobody knows what they'll do and they're safe in iran. If insurgents do something smarter than expected, the excuse for not expecting it is that iranians trained them. It's an all-purpose excuse for failure, so the more failure we get the more iranian influence we'll ascribe it to. And the more we blame our failures on iran the more we'll want to do something about it.

It's possible that you guys are attributing all sorts of subtle strategies to the US military because you're so much smarter than they are. Or rather, you're much more coordinated than they are. You get data and fit it together as best it fits, while they create data however they happen to create data and look for ways to angle it into great reviews and promotions.

10:50 AM  
Blogger badger said...

That's a good point about local initiative and "what works", but hopefully that's only the case within a a well-defined scope. I'm not trying to score easy points here, but it's always important to remember that organizations that rely entirely on local initiative and "what works" are the cell-based organizations like the picture we have of a global AQ franchise, or like a national resistance movement. When an army gets like that, you have a problem (Japanese army in China comes to mind). So naturally you have chain of command, rules of engagement, and so on. I guess you're not saying those are weak, are you?

Specifically, I don't think I'm saying with the point about driving a wedge between Sadr and Maliki is all that "subtle". I just think it stands to reason that an operation involving air strikes on Sadr City, for instance, can't be thought of as a case of small-group initiative. There's nothing subtle or mysterious about the politics of the sitation (see for instance my posts of Jan 11 "New rules of engagement?" and Aug 9 "Politics of the Sadr City bombing"), so if the rules of engagement permitted that kind of operation, it was on an ongoing basis, and it was )with the powers that be having full knowledge of the political meaning. I don't see how you can say these were random cases of local initiative, without impugning the command setup. You raise a good point in general and in specific micro situations, but in a case like this this(namely hitting the Sadr organization in spite of the effects on Maliki's position), I think the situation is pretty clear: The decision was either to do it because of its political effects, or do it in knowing disregard of the political effects, and if we're down to that level of argument, then we're really splitting hairs...

3:00 PM  
Blogger badger said...

just to be complete, on the question of arming Sunni groups, the political implications of that were also clear from a long time ago. I humbly recommend on that score a re-reading of my Oct 20, 2006 post called "Anbar Salvation Council versus AQ: Prologue". The hypothesis of US support was already on the table back then, (and so was the IAF opposition to the idea of USand/or government support for it) so whenever it was decided to go ahead and arm and support them, whatever you may say about it, it wasn't some local commander's "whatever works" brainstorm. Again, no doubt there are cases like those you describe, but surely not on this level.

3:21 PM  
Blogger annie said...

j thomas, i read a pdf file(sorry, can't remember where) written by an australian expert on insurgents , how he ran a successful operation and the US requested his counsel. this was during the time they were trying to frame the pirge as the next best thing. everything you mentioned was in that pdf file (
Our military is designed to allow initiative by subordinates,
), and this was going to some possible 'new approach'. i don't know if they applied it or not, but if they did. i seriously doubt we will see the effects so quickly. you can't just tell your subodinates to take initiative, and expect it to click. also, if it was 'designed' this way, you sure couldn't hear in in jay garners interview in the movie'no end in sight'. in fact, it sounded to me like no one was allowed to take initiative.

On Alison's comments:... her point that they could also serve as an ad hoc militia network for a quisling government (led by Allawi, say) is an interesting one and worth paying attention to, especially in the light of all this ridiculing of the prospect of a coup.

personally i think t=all the al douri rumors are about this. the US wants to frame 'al douri's flipping'. i have just listened to a barrage of this disinfo from rightwing commentors. once the baath announced it wasn't true, they said he was alighed w/AQ.

personally, i think we underestimate how much thought goes into the message. they constantly attempt to make very simple easy narratives to follow, for the american public who are largely uninformed.

if/when allawi is placed in power i am fairly confident it would ONLY be with the understanding of agreement on an iran attack. in that case it would be imperative the baath party was included. also, don't forget they keep talking about reversing the debaathification. so yes, the US desperately wants to align w/the baath. imho. this would be the ultimo to be able to say the baath is flipping to the US side. who else are they going to use for fodder to fight iran?

8:44 PM  

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