Thursday, December 30, 2004

The water and the woe

It never fails. Right at the end of the year -- when your mindset is on turning a corner, on ending one year and embracing the possibilities of a new one just ahead -- something happens. There's always some event that acts as a year's symbolic valedictory, in a relative instant putting the preceding 364 days into stark perspective.

The year 2004 is no exception. We got our curtain closing all right. But it wasn't a single death; it wasn't the passing of actor Jerry Orbach, a mainstay of the "Law & Order" TV franchise fast becoming the 31 flavors of TV law enforcement. It wasn't the passing of the self-styled bandleader Artie Shaw, who died today at the age of 94, 44 years after putting his clarinet down for the last time.

What emphatically closed the door on 2004 happened half a world away, in South Asia, in the Indian Ocean, the day after Christmas. That was the day a great seismic event -- an earthquake on or near the floor of the Indian Ocean -- rippled its way to the surface, creating a tsunami, a killer wave that inundated the beaches and shores of a dozen countries and killed about 117,000 people in four of them.

Yes, no typo. One hundred and seventeen thousand people -- a figure that, owing to the still-developing process of rescue and recovery, is certain to change again and again, as it has for the preceding ninety-six hours. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand are the four most dramatically impacted by the tsunami; the fatalities in Indonesia alone may top 85,000 people.

The big question is how the world will respond. Already, the usual aid organizations are stepping up to the plate. Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Americares and others are sending people over to the affected regions, and private donations will also come forward.

It will be curious to watch the full impact of the United States' reaction. Already under fire for being slow to offer a basic humanitarian response, the Bush administration has so far extended aid to the affected region totaling $35 million, an amount that, even without knowing the extent of the damage, seems awfully cheap and a relative pittance given the scope of the destruction. This is a surmise, but the catering budget for special events at the White House must be bigger than that.

- - -

The United States may have missed the boat on capitalizing on the situation from a purely humanitarian perspective, since there was no spontaneous stepping up to the plate in the spirit of the Berlin airlift. What also remains to be seen is how the U.S. benignly exploits the crisis from a geopolitical perspective. It can't have totally escaped the policy boys at the White House that Indonesia, the fourth-largest Muslim nation in the world, might be favorably susceptible to hearts-and-minds-style diplomacy -- the right kind of boots on the ground, with people bringing food and water rather than guns and soldiers -- the kind of training diet the United States has imposed on Iraq since March 2003.

It's hard to know at this juncture, with the contours of this natural tragedy still developing. But depending on how the United States responds, the tsunami could be the biggest opportunity yet to break the emotional back of the anti-American Islamic insurgency -- the foundation for al-Qaida support across the Muslim world. By making the right effort, maintaining the right profile, the United States could show the world -- not just the Muslim world -- that it hasn't forgotten how to come to the rescue, how to be that storied "city on a hill" Americans like to think their country still is.

It's anyone's guess as to which America will show up for this crisis: the America content to bristle with weapons and warnings, or the country represented internationally by Colin Powell, the one that prefers dialogue to destruction, the one that could lead the world in rebuilding South Asia's paradise, restoring at least some of America's good name in the process.

Whichever America does show up will need to be a presence on the ground for the truly long haul. Reconstruction in the region will certainly take months, and likely even years, and the economies in the region -- Indonesia is the world's fourth-largest coffee producer, Sir Lanka is the world's third-largest tea producer -- will probably need as much help as the people regaining their footing.

In 1948 the United States truly proved its might to the world with an altruistic action that cemented the image of America as a beacon for the world at large. That year the Berlin Airlift proved that the United States could step up to a challenge that didn't involve arms and weapons and getting people killed. That year this nation lived up to its charter and its loftiest values.

Here's hoping we can do it again. The stakes could not be higher.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The tipping point?

If U.S. forces in Iraq turn the tide of insurgents now wild in the country and manage to pull off the precarious, dangerous support role needed to ensure the election scheduled for seven weeks from now, they may have one man to thank -- and it's not Rumsfeld or Bush. One outspoken Army specialist from the Tennessee National Guard asking one direct, forthright question may have done as much to tweak the outcome of the war, or at least its execution from an American perspective.

Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point" speculates on how one small seemingly insignificant thing can shift the tide of battle in a variety of actions and endeavors. In events as distinctly different as an influenza outbreak and the renascence of Hush Puppies footwear, Gladwell explores the ways one seemingly minor event cascades into the wider world with unanticipated results.

In 1953 Army Secretary Joseph Welch broke the back of the McCarthy witch hunts with his refreshingly distilled query, the tippoing-point question everyone in the country wanted to ask the bibulous senator from Wisconsin: "At long last, have you no sense of decency?"

And on Dec. 8, at a hangar in Kuwait, where about 2,300 soldiers awaited deployment to Kuwait, Spec. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard got up and asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a direct question: "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?"

The question, a potential by-extension embarassment of the commander-in-chief, wasn't ignored or coolly met with cleared throats and murmurs. The 2,300 soldiers assembled there gave a slow-building, lusty shout in response -- the soldier's way of saying "that's a very good question. Perhaps the secretary would enlighten us. At length."

It would be walking out on a long limb to suggest a soldier's question was the start of the great unraveling of the U.S. military effort; in all probability the soldier will be gently if icily admonished about being quite so direct with the Secretary of Defense and how such actions tend not to be good for one's career arc in the military.

But it's out there: the seed of an idea that at least some of the 150,000 American forces in country do not feel secure; the idea that some of that insecurity originates with concerns over their weapons and armor, rather than life in the hell on earth of a war zone they inhabit, dangerously, every day.

Friday, December 3, 2004

The 9% solution

"This is my mistake," Michael Stipe sang in the REM song "World Leader Pretend," "let me make it good." George Bush and the Bush babies have apparently taken the lyric to heart in the post-9/11 environment. Yesterday's announcement of the Defense Department's approval of the administration's request of another 12,000 U.S. forces in Iraq begins the process of cementing another folly in the annals of American political history.

The planned increase in troop strength from 138,000 to 150,000 (a hair under 9 percent) is a stunningly bad idea from an administration already legendary for bad ideas. The additional forces in the region are problematic for several reasons. First, the inevitable prospect of more American casualties deepens the gravity of suffering here at home. For those Americans not yet utterly inured to the daily body count among American forces, the prospect of more Americans available for killing and dying is an unsettling one.

Second, it further compromises American military readiness elsewhere in the world. Those 12,000 forces must be deployed from somewhere else, either from another foreign location (where they wouldn't have been if they weren't needed there already) or straight from the United States (which all too often is depleted of its citizen soldiers in the National Guard, presumably one of our stronger links in the Homeland Security chain).

Thirdly, it's a gambit whose timing couldn't be more colossally, willfully catastrophic. At precisely the time the United States should be more actively reinforcing the idea of Iraqi political autonomy, we are taking the opposite course, increasing our presence and influence instead of decreasing it; reinforcing the impact of the power of a military situation rather than that of an indigenous political solution; implying with our actions something that's purportedly the opposite of the message we want to send -- showing the war-weary, dictator-tired, insurgent-beleaguered Iraqi people that democracy, sacred of sacreds, is underwritten at the point of a gun.

And last, and in some ways worst of all, it presumes to guarantee the mechanics of a democracy -- the machinery of popular vote -- even though there's no guarantee at all that the added troop strength will make it easier, or even possible, for a vote to take place. Regardless of American might in the region -- or maybe even because of it, the Iraqi voting public is not likely to turn out if they perceive danger by going to the polls. Since in the recent past, many, many women and children have been killed and maimed by the American occupiers, it's unreasonable to expect the Iraqis to embrace those who have shattered their families, their dreams, their traditions and who now purport to be their salvation at the polling place.

Whether the 9 percent solution ginned up by the Defense Department and the Bush babies will be enough is anyone's guess. But already there's an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound mindset that has begun to take hold in the runup to the second George Bush inaugural. Some in Congress are saying that even more troops are needed in Iraq.

This is the danger of a folly writ large, so large you can't see around it. No half-measures for them. No chin-pulling. None of that goddamn Kerryesque sifting for the facts. The Bush babies don't want facts to get in the way of their good story. They never have. What the hell, they reason. Stay the course. This is my mistake. Let me make it good.
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