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When Worlds Collide

26 Jun

There aren’t many instances where I get to write about the meeting of the literary and political worlds, but TPM’s book discussion of Philip Gourevitch’s Standard Operating Procedure is one of them.  Gourevitch has his feet in both worlds as both the editor of The Paris Review and a journalist who wrote an excellent book on the Rwandan genocide, and makes him well suited to flesh out the varied stories and narrative strains the make up the abuses at Abu Ghraib .

What makes this book discussion more interesting than the usual fare is the inclusion of poet/memoirist Mary Karr (of The Liars Club fame) as part of the discussion and that fellow poet/memiorist Nick Flynn shows up in the comments section to chastise Gourevitch for not including more Iraqi voices in his account.  Gourevitch responds that part of the reason for not explicitly including the words of those Iraqi’s tortured at Abu Ghraib was his focus on the events as a particularly American story–that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, as Gourevitch  argues, were not inevitable, and were the result of tacit (and sometimes explicit) support of American officials. This is a story about the policy of torture.

Flynn’s concern is common one among writers: who to include and how to tell the story without distorting the truth or privileging one narrative over another.  But it is, I think, a secondary concern here, and one too focused on the (laudable) goal of including voices that were silenced or otherwise appropriated in the media swarm that followed Abu Ghraib.  SOP‘s major contribution seems to be the way it examines how the decisions and policy of the Bush administration translated to actions at Abu Ghraib, as Matt Steinglass observes :

What’s really powerful about this story is that it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever seen for examining the way that policy decisions translate into events. Think, for instance, of Jane Mayer’s amazing article for The New Yorker on Alberto Mora. The hardest thing to do in journalism is to draw connections between complex and fuzzy management and policy decisions, bureaucratic political maneuvering and the adoption of one or another document as official policy, and the consequences such documents and management tactics have for the accomplishment of an organization’s mission. The reporting that’s been done on how abuses at Abu Ghraib (and Bagram and Guantanamo) stemmed from the evolution of US torture policy has been probably the best, most gripping organizational reporting I’ve read.

I’m calling this one for Gourevitch because (as Karr also notes) a book that widens the narrative scope to all accounts is a different, though important, book.

Also in torture reporting: Spencer Ackerman goes to the Amnesty Guantanamo protest in DC and talks with former army chaplin CPT. James Lee, who was arrested, and eventually released, for suscpision of espionage.

It’s Time to Get Off The Merry Go Round

2 Jun

Over at Passport, Blake Hounshell is asking if Obama has an Iraq problem. I’m not quite sure how a policy of withdrawal from Iraq would be a harder sell if it turns out the surge is rousing success:

It’s possible the war staying out of the news will only help focus the race on the economy, where the Democrats have an advantage. But I can see it cutting both ways. At the very least, it will be awkward for Obama to pivot from saying, “the war is lost, let’s get out” to “the war is won, let’s go home.”

First, I haven’t heard any message that equals “the war is lost”. The central message of the withdrawal plan has been the logic of disengaging to allow Iraqi elected officials to make the necessary political decisions. It’s not that we’ve lost Iraq, but that we can’t build the kind of Iraq we’d like (or, more importantly, the Iraqi’s would want and deserve) through a military solution alone.

As Fareed Zakaria put it, we’re stuck in the “Iraq loop”. If the surge is a success we can begin disengaging, but when violence flairs up, we redouble our commitment in order to give Iraqis a chance to strike some sort of political accord that will quell the sectarian fighting. Whether it’s an upturn or downturn in violence, there’s still the need for the political compromises to build a lasting government and peace. I don’t see how saying “well things are working out, now we can go” has a different political consequence from “if we don’t leave, things won’t work themselves out”.

The Future of Iraqi Democracy

3 Nov

This NY Times op-ed by former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi highlights the drawbacks of quick democratization–press for elections too soon and you may end up with a dysfunctional government sorely lacking in public support:

Accordingly, the vast majority of the electorate based their choices on sectarian and ethnic affiliations, not on genuine political platforms. Because many electoral lists weren’t made public until just before the voting, the competing candidates were simply unknown to ordinary Iraqis. This gave rise to our sectarian Parliament, controlled by party leaders rather than by the genuine representatives of the people. They have assembled a government unaccountable and unanswerable to its people.

Though I recognize the problems a transitioning democracy faces in producing a stable government, Allawi underscores the primary benefit of free elections: legitimacy. A country needs some form of the population’s consent to construct a government in a post-authoritarian regime, or at least a mechanism for keeping the people from turning against the process. But I’m not sure the measures Allawi is proposing are either realistic or likely to confer more legitimacy:

Furthermore, a new law should ban the use of religious symbols and rhetoric by candidates and parties — these have no place in democratic elections. In order to prevent interference from militias and to ensure transparency, the United Nations must supervise all these elections district by district. And these reforms should be supplemented by other preconditions of national reconciliation, like general amnesty to all those who have not engaged in terrorism.

I have a hard time believing a country that is currently split along ethnic and religious lines is going to accept a general ban on religious symbols. An Iraqi politician need only point to the Republicans in the US, christian democrats in Europe, or even the president of secular Turkey and say “Look, religion is a part of the democracies of the west and our neighbor Turkey–why should we eliminate it from our political discourse?” It’s hard to sell people on the liberty granting benefits of democracy while telling them you have to enact illiberal measures to achieve them.

And although amnesty will have to be a necessary part of any nationwide political reconciliation, it will likely have to include those who have engaged in terrorism, to say nothing of the difficulty of sorting out those who have been part of the insurgency but not engaged in terrorism and those that have committed terrorist acts.

Ultimately, the problem is that Allawi’s plan sounds tailored to the concerns of an American audience: don’t allow Islamic extremists to win elections, prevent shari’a from being put into law, don’t let insurgents who have killed American soldiers get away with it. But these aren’t the same concerns for Iraqis or for putting together a working political consensus.  Serving as another reminder that democracy promotion is a difficult and flawed policy to begin with.

The Confidence Problem

10 Sep

From the National Security Network (via Ezra Klein) a video about the progress of the “surge” and the crisis of confidence surrounding the administration:

Democracy Arsenal (whose authors are part of the National Security Network), also has a fact check of some of the claims made in General Petraeus’s speech.

The bottom line is that with credibility surrounding Iraq War management hovering around nonexistent, no one should be surprised that “give us another few months to assess progress” is rejected almost out-of-hand. To begin with, it isn’t clear what long-term goal the surge will accomplish, even it does prove effective at quelling violence. Yes, lives will be saved in the near term, which is always good, but if everyone is admitting that the real success comes from gains on the political front, then what good are military victories if there isn’t cooperation within the Iraqi government? Who are we making the country safe for if there’s no state to run it?

Furthermore, Bush’s past foreign policy decisions (like four years of a mismanaged war run by Don Rumsfeld) suggests that the President is content to stick with his own Iraq policy until the end of his term. The reports on progress with a “wait and see” approach are procedural niceties to keep public minimally informed and kick the can down the road so that attempts can be made to salvage something from Iraq.

Which is also why I dissent from Matt Yglesias’s assessment of the new Pollack/Pascual paper,“Salvaging the Possible”. Yglesias sees it this way: Continue reading

Surprised by Realism

31 Aug

Unlike Jamie Kirchick, I don’t think realists gaining influence within the Democratic policy establishment should be any cause for concern, even if you’re a hard-core liberal interventionist. The two Democratic frontrunners, Clinton and Obama, have advisors and support that either directly from the former internationalist Clinton administration, or are proponents of an active and potentially interventionist foreign policy (Samantha Power). But post-Iraq, we should expect some limitations on American power, considering the popular mood of the country and the resources we’ve already committed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A realist camp withing the policy establishment is complimnetary, and quite predictable. Kirchick cites an Observer article detailing the rise of the realists:

The piece profiled former Clinton administration Defense official Michèle Flournoy, president of a new think tank called the Center for a New American Security, which hopes to staff the next Democratic presidential administration. According to the article, she and “her colleagues think the war in Iraq and the country’s plummeting reputation abroad changes the equation, and that the next president may have to reign in his or her ambitions when it comes to the projection of American power.”

Flournoy’s comment is a pretty sensible assessment of the foreign policy challenge a Democratic (or Republican, for that matter) president would face. Like balancing the budget during the Clinton administration, deficits run up during the Regan years restrained spending on social programs in order to maintain a strong economy. In a similar fashion, Clinton or Obama can’t simply run their ideal foreign policy, because they’ll have some cleaning up and restructuring to do after a failed Bush presidency. I know Kirchick wants to use this to suggest the Democrats are thinking of hiding out in the garage of the West Wing for the next several years, but the realists are just articulating the obvious.

Ken Pollack’s Biggest Mistake: Not Listening to Ken Pollack

19 Aug

Dan Drezner surveys the current debate about the foreign policy community and adds some important insights. An excerpt:

Does this mean, as Greenwald implies, that there is no debate within the FPC? Hell no. There can and should be vigorous debates over what constitutes a “vital national interest,” whether force should be used multilaterally or unilaterally, what other policy tools should be used, etc. That’s not a small zone of disagreement. Indeed, as Chris Sullentrop pointed out in March 2003, Pollack’s Threatening Storm rebuked an awful lot of the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq.

Pollack comes in for no small amount of criticism in the blogosphere. Some of it is deserved (why he would team up with O’Hanlon to write this op-ed is beyond me¹), but much of it misses the fact that Pollack is a smart military and intelligence expert who, as Ilan Goldenberg points out, actually knows the Middle East (but was wrong about the war). He’s no neocon hack, and as Drezner’s post highlights, his pro regime-change book , The Threatening Storm, had some serious caveats for an Iraq invasion:

In The Threatening Storm, Pollack cautions the United States against behaving as a “rogue superpower” that does whatever it wants, whenever it wants: “If we behave in this fashion, we will alienate our allies and convince much of the rest of the world to band together against us to try to keep us under control. Rather than increasing our security and prosperity, such a development would drastically undermine it.” Continue reading

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

9 Oct

Unlike the eternally optimistic Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakaria is ready to call the Iraq War a failure.  After waiting a reasonable period for some the Bush adminstration’s better tactical and strategic adjustments to be enacted and take effect, and for the Iraq government to muster the will to find a political solution, he sees no hope of a military solution (or a military aided solution).  Andrew Sullivan isn’t ready to call it quits in Iraq yet, but his appraisal of Fareed’s article pretty much says it all.  As the man says, money quote:

But if Fareed is giving in, you know it’s beyond serious.

Perhaps this may be the beginning of an intellectual tipping point for the reasonable political commentariat who supported the war and still hold out hope that a mismanaged war can be turned around.

 UPDATE: Matt Yglesias thinks Andrew Sullivan is living in a fantasy world where the Bush administration would actually make the sort of changes that Sullivan would like to see in our Iraq strategy.