Saturday, August 20, 2005

Great(ly lowered) expectations

The outcome of the erstwhile Iraq phase of the war on terrorism is now a forgone conclusion. It is over, and – since so many defense officials and analysts insist on framing that war’s prosecution in the context of winning and losing – the United States is in the process of losing, if not having already lost.

The language of that defeat can be found in the Aug. 13 edition of The Washington Post, in a story by Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer. Quoting and paraphrasing U.S. officials – some of them the same people who insisted that the United States was Winning that war – Wright and Knickmeyer document the now-prevailing view at the White House: a need to abandon the “unreality” of pre-war assessments, and the goals that emerged from those pre-war assessments.

“The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society where the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges,” the Post reported, based on comments from U.S. officials.

That statement, that concession speech on deep background, undercuts the very rationale, the bedrock and foundation for every action taken by the United States in Iraq from the moment the first bomb hit the ground in March 2003. It calls into question the need for the loss of more than 1,850 American lives, and thousands upon thousands of Iraqi lives; it directly calls into question the expenditure of billions of dollars in American money.

It reveals just how big a bill of bogus goods the American people were sold by an administration that, like any good salesman, first sold that bill of goods to itself.

The disconnect, the discontinuity in thinking within the administration is obvious in two succeeding quotes in the Post story. One “senior official” gets it right: “What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground,” the official says. “We are in a process of . . . shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.”

In the very next graph, though, are comments from President Bush, statements that indicate a pointless cognitive dissonance about the national misadventure in Iraq, and the persistence of a lack of the vision thing, which happens when you’re wearing blinders.

“Iraqis are taking control of their country, building a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. And we’re helping Iraqis succeed,” Bush said in an Aug. 12 radio address.

Implicit in the statement is the idea that the ends may yet justify the means, that this hard lesson will pay dividends down the road. But this exercise in post-9/11 national character-building has come at too high a price in lives, in dollars and loss of global goodwill.

There will still be talk, less and less as time goes on, of the good the United States has done since the invasion: the water purification stations up and running, the soccer fields repainted, the hydroelectric plants put on line. But such things, and the arguments of those who justify the war on these capital-constructionist grounds, miss the point. This was never a War on Iraqi Infrastructure Neglect; it was always held up as the pre-eminent theater of a War on Terrorism. But the porosity of the administration’s arguments for fighting that war in Iraq is finally obvious to the administration itself.

The White House is discovering late in its martial stewardship of the Iraqi people something it should have come to grips with long ago: the idea that a Western-style democracy could be imposed on a former dictatorship is no more acceptable to the Iraqis than the idea of bringing back the dictatorship itself.

Much of this failure has to do with the avarice and blustery cunning of the Bush administration. George Bush’s relentless penchant for timetables, and the neocons’ take-no-prisoners style led to the insane series of deadlines imposed on Iraqi leaders. Officials involved in the changeover to Iraqi control told The Post that “[I]n the race to meet a sequence of fall deadlines, the process of forging national unity behind the constitution is largely being scrapped.”

This was the problem built-in to an attempt to abide by deadlines set by a military power with only the smallest foreign interest, but every domestic political interest, in the outcome. Any hope of welding the disparate factions of modern Iraq into a cohesive unified population goes out the window for the sake of domestic politics, and the train-station-timetable tendencies of an administration obsessed with those politics.

In all probability, this is likely to be a stealth defeat. There’ll be no bugging out of the zone, no frantic embassy evacuations, no Hueys veering near-vertically off the ground with refugees hanging from the struts. This defeat will be more orchestrated, happening by degrees, an incremental withdrawal less likely to jar the psyche of the American people, and less likely, at least in the short term, to reawaken the spectre of Vietnam.

This defeat will be well-laced between the inevitable breaking-news events; the administration’s already doing what it can to have a withdrawal well under way, and therefore off the front page, by the midterm elections in November 2006. But to anyone watching – certainly to even casual students of history, and to the relatives and friends of the 2,000 probable American fatalities in Iraq – what’s happening will be painfully obvious.

In his days as a lightning rod for the anti-war movement, testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1971, future Massachusetts senator John Kerry famously posed a hypothetical question for the architects of the U.S.-led war in Vietnam. “How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Someone in Washington, probably one of those officials who can’t be quoted by name, must be asking the very same question right now.

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Bolton from the blue

Yesterday, President Bush, exercising his constitutional prerogative, used his recess appointment powers to name John Bolton, conservative Presa Canario and vicious ideologue, to be the United States ambassador to the United Nations, to the howls of moderates and Democrats and the deep consternation of much of the international community Bolton will sit with in the General Assembly.

His first day on the job didn't have an auspicious start; people outside the U.N. booed him as he arrived for work. What's yet to be seen is how well Bolton can function under the cloud of his very appointment, and what propensity he has, after all the noise and outrage that attended his confirmation hearings, for seeking progress -- if not always consensus -- in the world body.

Bolton has long been known as something of an ideological attack dog, a street fighter with the personality of a shark going after chum. His appointment was a forgone conclusion, despite the howls of the people who opposed him, in Congress, the media and on the street. But until his appointment, the United States was faced with the embarrassing prospect of continuing to have an empty chair at the world forum -- as symbolic a snapshot of the U.S./international relations as one could ask for.

Bolton got the gig. And come on, we knew he would. But John Bolton will learn a relatively new game from a range of global players, countries and envoys and governments that will not dance the American tune. Right about now, John Bolton is a lot like the tough white guy in a foreign country in one of those Warner Bros. movies from the '40s. Strolling through the bazaar with a cigar clenched between his teeth, he thinks he knows where he's going, but it's not his turf. And he's surrounded by people for whom visitors are, for the most part, a distraction to the way they have done things in their countries for hundreds of years, sometimes hundreds of years longer than the country he's from.

John Bolton can't come into the United Nations like Indiana Jones. He's got too much to learn and too little time. And his classmates there at the General Assembly know it, all too well, that when global friends and rivals, or global friends and enemies sit side by side in a conference room, the size of the world collapses, the enormity of the philosophical differences is distilled. And suddenly, personality is everything.
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