Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Batwoman's a lesbian? Who knew?

Talk about things coming full circle!

As I mentioned a post last year, the Batwoman character was created for the Batman comic book series after some goofy psychologist wrote a book claiming that Batman and other comics were making good little American boys into, you know, the sort who like boys more than girls.

Wonder Woman even came under some suspicion.

The comic books have had gay and lesbian characters for years now.  But now we hear that Batwoman is returning.  And she won't be romancing Bruce Wayne, either:  Batwoman regresa al cómic como lesbiana El Mundo 31.05.06 and Straight (and Not) Out of the Comics by George Gene Gustines New York Times 05/28/06.

Gustines mentions that this proliferation of hyphenated "Bat"characters:

Another effort to link old and new characters centers on Kathy Kane, the gay Batwoman who will appear in costume for the first time in a July issue of "52." Batwoman was introduced in 1956, but she was one of several, often silly additions to the Bat family, including Ace the Bat-Hound (1955), Bat-Mite (1959) and Bat-Girl (1961). In her latest incarnation, Batwoman is a wealthy, buxom lipstick lesbian who has a history with Renee Montoya, an ex-police detective who has a starring role in "52."

I'm tempted to make a joke about Ace the Bat-Hound and a certain Republican Senator, but I'll refrain.

That paragraph doesn't mention that this odd cast of characters was a response in particular to the paranoia propagated by Frederic Wertham and his comic-bashing Seduction of the Innocent (1954).  But that wasn't the beginning of the anti-comics craze.  This undated site, Seduction of the Innocents and the Attack on Comic Books, prepared for a Pennsylvania State University class,  gives more background on the alert Dr. Wertham and his crusade to rescue America's pure children from being dragged down into sin and corruption by Superman and Batman.

The author, Jamie Colville, writes:

[In 1945] Dr. Wertham set up a clinic for underprivileged people. After opening it he soon got interested in the "effects" that comic books had on children. In 1948, Dr. Wertham came out against comic books publicly in an interview in Collier's Magazine titled "Horror in the Nursery." This interview would be the start of Dr. Wertham's seven-year study of comic books' effects on children. In this interview, Dr. Wertham would state that:

"The number of `good' comics is not worth discussing, but the great number that masquerade as `good' certainly deserve close scrutiny."

A few weeks later Dr. Wertham attended a symposium in New York City called "The Psychopathology of Comic Books". The reaction to Dr. Wertham's views was immediate. One month later, in the April issue of Time magazine, a story appeared about Detroit Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy, who examined all the comic books available in his community, and then stated they were; "Loaded with communist teachings, sex, and racial discrimination." In May of 1948 he also presented his views in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature. ...

Some people were a little more extreme in their views against comic books. In 1949, Gershon Legman wrote a book called Love and Death, where he claimed that comic books train kids like animals, by breaking their spirit. He also claimed that comic books distort real life, and give kids violent images (or as he puts it, "blood") to "feed" upon.

What will we tell SpongeBob?

For my own part, I loved reading comic books growing up.  They certainly helped me enjoy reading, a habit which has stayed with me.

And, hey, if a comic-book series like the X-Men can put Anna Paquin and  Famke Jannsen on the big screen in the same film, they've got to be doing something right!  We're talking high literary value here.

Tough times in Afghanistan

The Bush administration only wants to hear the "good news" from Afghanistan.  But the general situation in Afghanistan has hardly been good news for the last 4 1/2 years.

In a recent study, Afghanistan’s Uncertain Transition From Turmoil to Normalcy (March 2006), Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan, points out the following dilemmas:

Afghan officials say the world thus far has put Afghanistan on life support, rather than investing in a cure. The following conditions make it clear that Afghanistan has the potential to be a disastrous situation if intelligent, measured steps are not taken:

• An ever-more deadly insurgency with sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, where leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban have found refuge;

• A corrupt and ineffective administration without resources and a potentially dysfunctional parliament;

• Levels of poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy, and gender inequality that put Afghanistan near the bottom of every global ranking;

• Levels of aid that have only recently expanded above a fraction of that accorded to other post-conflict countries;

• An economy and administration heavily influenced by drug traffickers;

• Massive arms stocks despite the demobilization of many militias;

• A potential denial of the Islamic legitimacy of the Afghan government by a clergy that feels marginalized;

• Ethnic tensions exacerbated by competition for resources and power;

• Interference by neighboring states, all of which oppose a long-term U.S. presence in the region;

• Well-trained and well-equipped security forces that the government may not be able to pay when aid declines in a few years;

• Constitutional requirements to hold more national elections (at least six per decade) than the government may be able to afford or conduct;

• An exchange rate inflated by aid and drug money that subsidizes cheap imports and hinders economic growth; and

• Future generations of unemployed, frustrated graduates and dropouts from the rapidly expanding school system.

One of the problems for the current NATO force in Afghanistan is that the US human rights record makes cooperation with American forces more difficult, Rubin writes:

Some European NATO members are resisting unification of command with the Coalition that might lead to their troops’ participation in counterinsurgency operations and lead them to turn over detainees to the U.S. government, in whose custody they risk treatment in violation of international humanitarian law.  They have now decided to turn prisoners over to the Afghan government on the condition that prisoners will neither be executed nor turned over to U.S. custody. Several troop contributors also have adopted national caveats for other reasons, even against proactive patrolling and measures to press for demobilization of militias. Success in Afghanistan, however, requires NATO contributors to find a way to carry out the mission while respecting international law, despite obstacles posed by the U.S. administration.  (my emphasis)

That Judas Gospel

I found this article a refreshing switch from the weeping and gnashing of teeth we've seen over the Da Vinci Code: Judas and Jesus:  What Did the Gnostics Really Believe? by Jack Miles Commonweal 06/02/06 issue (accessed 05/31/06).  Miles writes:

In a recent special issue of U.S. News & World Report (on sale through August 29), one can read: “In the beginning, there was not one Christianity, but many. And among them was a well-established tradition of gnosticism, one of the key ‘heresies’ upon which Dan Brown builds the plot of The Da Vinci Code.” Well, no, actually: In the beginning of the common era, there was not even one Christianity but only Greco-Roman Jewry, whose monotheism, even in its proto-Christian guise, the polytheistic majority rightly regarded as atheism vis-à-vis all gods but one. This was the divide that mattered. Within that Jewish world community, two historic world religions-Rabbinic Judaism and Orthodox Christianity-would define each other into existence in a reciprocal process that, as Daniel Boyarin has recently and brilliantly shown (Border Lines, University of Pennsylvania Press), took centuries to reach completion. Alongside both, more than ready to absorb them, was the immense, flexible, metaphysically speculative, culturally omnivorous, definition-defying mainstream that was Greco-Roman polytheism. Gnosticism was a kaleidoscopically pluriform variety of that.

And this one is thought-provoking, too:

The Betrayer's Gospel by Eduard Iricinschi, Lance Jenott, Philippa Townsend New York Review of Books 06/08/06 issue; accessed 05/31/06.  They give attention to issues like the role of martyrdom in Christianity at the time of the Gospel of Judas and the Gnostics.

As they relate, by the second century the Roman authorities had become suspicious enough of Christians' unwillingness to participate in the Roman religious festivals that they began to coerce them to renounce the faith:

The Roman authorities were particularly suspicious of a cult that encouraged its members to opt out of participation in the festivals and rituals that were central to the public life of the empire, and to do so in favor of secretive meetings in private houses. Such behavior seemed to many people inexplicably withdrawn from society, and hostile to it.

Despite these perceptions of the Christian religion, the prosecution of its members in the second century was sporadic and aimed principally at attempting to get Christians to change what were seen as antisocial practices and not at physically punishing them. Generally, to escape conviction on the charge of being a Christian, a member of the church had to deny his or her faith and make a gesture of willingness to participate in worship of the Roman gods, for example by sprinkling some incense on an altar. Roman judges often gave Christians numerous opportunities to recant before finally sentencing them to death. But many church leaders, for example the second-century bishop of Antioch, exhorted their congregations not to avoid martyrdom, but rather to embrace it. Recalcitrant Christians were held up as glorious examples to others; the idea that martyrs were participating in Jesus' passion made suffering something to be not only endured, but desired.

But not all Christians of the time took that view.  "Some Christians," they write, "objected to what they saw as a pointless waste of life, and they believed that public confessions of faith were unimportant."

They refer to another (presumably Gnostic) text found at Nag Hammadi called *The Testimony of Truth* that dissented from the Church leaders who demanded that Christians accept martyrdom rather than make superficial compromises with the Roman pagan religion.  In that document's words:

The foolish, thinking in their heart that if they confess "We are Christians," in word only but not with power, while giving themselves over to a human death, not knowing where they are going or who Christ is, thinking that they will live while they are really in error, hasten toward the principalities and the authorities.

And they write:

Here [in Testimony of Truth] the principalities and authorities that are referred to may be those of the Roman Empire; or they may be demonic powers who hold sway over the world. While we don't know much about the people who wrote and read this text, it is likely that they believed inner commitment was what mattered. In the same way that Paul advised the Corinthians that it was acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to the pagan gods, because they didn't really exist, these Christians may have felt that publicly renouncing their beliefs and taking part in sacrificial rites was not a betrayal as long as one privately maintained one's personal commitment to the Christian faith.

The Gospel of Judas seems to express a similar attitude toward martyrdom; but rather than criticize the martyrs themselves, it implicitly blames the bishops as wicked priests who are invoking Jesus' name, yet offering their followers up like dumb animals on the altar of a false god. Just as in the first scene, in which Jesus laughs at the disciples because their thanksgiving rituals are directed toward the wrong god, here too he criticizes the apostles and, by implication, their successors the bishops as misunderstanding what the true God wants ...

China and the Arab nations

This is a thoughtful comment about China's evolving relationship to the Arab world, framed by a marriage metaphor:  The Arabs Take a Chinese Wife: Sino-Arab Relations in the Decade to Come by Chas Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.) 05/07/06.  Freeman says:

What do the Arabs and Chinese see in each other? Quite a bit.

The Arabs see a partner who will buy their oil without demanding that they accept a foreign ideology, abandon their way of life, or make other choices they'd rather avoid. They see a country that is far away and has no imperial agenda in their region but which is internationally influential and likely in time to be militarily powerful. They see a place to exchange their portraits of little green dead Americans for things they can unwrap and enjoy. They see a country that unreservedly welcomes their investments and is grateful for the jobs these create. They see a major civilization that seems determined to build a partnership with them, does not insult their religion or their way of life, values its reputation as a reliable supplier too much to engage in the promiscuous application of sanctions or other coercive measures, and has no habit of bombing or invading other countries to whose policies it objects.   [Tibetans or Vietnamese might quibble on that point, however.]

In short, the Arabs see the Chinese as pretty much like Americans - that is, Americans as we used to be before we decided to experiment with diplomacy-free foreign policy, hit-and-run democratization, compassionate - can't make out the word - colonialism, - "compassionate colonialism," that's it - and other "neocon" conceits of the age. And they see a chance to rebalance their international relationships to offset their longstanding overdependence on the United States. They know that they can't divorce us, even if they wished to do so. They are as addicted to our money as we are to their oil. We are locked in a Catholic marriage. But they are Muslims and they don't have to divorce us to take a second wife. Hence their romances with China and India. And these romances are taking place when international polls routinely show that, outside of Germany and our own country, China is now far more admired and trusted than theUnited States.  (my emphasis)

Bush's Long War Doctrine and the export of American democracy

I still like to think of myself as some kind of Wilsonian in foreign policy matters.  But the cynicism of the Bush administration in using "democracy" as an excuse for preventive war is making that outlook seem more and more problematic.  Pat Lang makes available a column by Richard Sale on conservative criticisms of Bush's Long War Doctrine.

Sale's conclusion is one of the bedrock considerations of the "realist" view of foreign policy:

America is, at bottom, only a country, not a glorious cause lying outside the stream of history. Like any other country, we have had selfish and inglorious episodes in our past; the Mexican War, the handling of the “liberated’ Philippines after the Spanish-American War and others. There certainly have been times when we have been noble, morally generous and clear thinking.

But there are have been others when we have been greedy, brutal and squalid.

No two societies are completely alike, and it is a mistake to think that the institutions, traditions, and cultures of other countries are not revered and prized by their inhabitants as much as we revere and prize our own.

The belief that each and every foreigner secretly hungers to be an American is to me one of the most ludicrous of ideas because it flatters our conceit, and, if widely believed, will prove to be a block to our moral growth as a nation.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Yes, there are still Jacksonian Democrats around

Al Gore is one of them:  Born again Guardian 05/31/06 (interview with Al Gore by Jonathan Freedland).

I don't know if he'll run for President again.  But Big Al hasn't given up the fight for the good cause.  The money quote that made the lede on the Guardian's news article on the interview was from this part:

Later I ask Gore if he's moved to the left these past six years. After all, he denounced plans for the coming war in Iraq in September 2002, long before his Democrat[ic] colleagues, and he now unashamedly attacks corporate special interests. A flash of anger: "No! If you have a renegade band of rightwing extremists who get hold of power, the whole thing goes to the right. But I haven't moved. I'm where I've always been."

To describe the Bush administration in such terms is indicative that, for all the gags, Gore's fury has not gone away. So is he gearing up for another go? "I don't expect to be a candidate." Is there some event that could change his mind? "Not that I can see," he says, with a wide grin.  (my emphasis)

A "renegad band of rightwing extremists".  That about describes the Bush administration, doesn't it?  Heck, it describes virtually the entire Republican Congress!

This is an interesting line, too:

Gore is fond of quoting Churchill and his warnings of "the gathering storm" of fascism. And everyone knows that Churchill came out of the political wilderness to lead the battle against the storm.

Ezra Klein makes an important point about a possible Gore candidacy on TAPPED of 05/30/06:

What makes divining his political intentions so frustrating is that Gore has, comparatively speaking, all the time in the world. It used to be that fundraising required a lot of rich buddies, a heap o' travel, and endless chicken dinners. Now, Gore could enter shortly before Iowa and, if the base was sufficiently dissatisfied, become financially competitive in a matter of hours. And he wouldn't have to lift a finger for infrastructure building until he sent out that press release. Moreover, Dean's loss and Kerry's triumph taught political watchers that the fundraising arms race isn't necessarily relevant - Dean's money didn't slow his collapse, and Kerry's comparative disadvantage didn't impede his ascension. Pundits watching to see if Gore tries to compete with Hillary's monster fundraising operation will be disappointed. He has no reason to. The early primary states are cheap, and that's not even mentioning the rush of free media he'd get from entering the race. He'd be both Time and Newsweek's cover boy the following Monday. And if he won some primaries, as Kerry proved, the money would be there for him in the general.  (my emphasis)

As Freedland observes, a Gore victory in 2008 would be "poetic justice".  Yes, it certainly would.

Phony "centrism" on the Democratic side of the aisle

David Sirota has a long post today on Joe Lieberman & the hostile takeover of "centrism", Sirotanlog 05/30/06, in which he writes:

In my new book *Hostile Takeover*, I spend a good deal of time showing how ultra-conservative right-wingers have hijacked the terms "centrist" and "mainstream" and disconnected them from what's actually "centrist" and "mainstream" among the public. This is no small matter (and a topic I have focused on before) - it is a hugely important and powerful linguistic weapon deviously employed by the most destructive forces. That's right - today in Washington, positions that are way to the right of where the American public stands are regularly called "centrist" or "mainstream." That's no accident - it is a deliberate strategy employed by Big Money interests that run the Establishment to effectively marginalize the vast majority of the population from its own political debate and political system. It is, in short, a hostile takeover not just of our government, but of political discourse itself.

How this semantic strategy legitimates right-wing positions and politicians can best be seen in looking at Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), a man incessantly billed by the Washington media - and himself - as a "centrist."...

On almost every major issue, the data shows that Lieberman is far to the right of the "center" or "mainstream" of American public opinion.

Take the Iraq War. Lieberman continues to unflinchingly support the stay-the-course policy of the Bush administration, to the point where he attacks those who even raise questions about the administration's Iraq policy as "undermin[ing] the president's credibility at our nation's peril." His out-of-the-mainstream position comes at a time when every major national poll shows roughly two thirds of Americans oppose the war and want a change in policy. But it gets worse. Lieberman has long claimed that because of the Iraq War, "the world is safer, America is safer." Again, CNN/USA Today polls asked this very question, and they have consistently shown (here and here) that the majority of Americans believe that the Iraq War has made America less safe. In sum, the cold, hard data shows that despite the rhetoric, Joe Lieberman is on the fringe extreme, while those like Ned Lamont who have criticized his position and who want a change in policy are the real centrists.  (my emphasis)

Who's to blame for the failures of Bush's Long War? "Not me", say the conservatives

Bush's Cold War metaphor which he empasized at his West Point speech of 05/27/06 is attracting quite a bit of attention.

Tom Porteous looks at the prospect of Losing The Long War 05/30/06.  He doesn't believe that Bush's Long War bears any realistic comparison to the Cold War, much less the Second World War whose image Bush's supporters like to dress up his policies with:

The fact is, however, that we are not living through any crisis remotely comparable to the Cold War or WW II (as goes the rhetoric of the Long War). The "threat" from Islamism remains limited to random acts of political terrorism, horrifying for the victims and entirely reprehensible, but of no major strategic threat to the West. The balance of economic, military and political power remains overwhelmingly on the side of the United States and its allies. All Muslim states except Iran are subservient to America's interests. For the vast majority of Westerners, the Long War impinges hardly at all on their daily lives.

The same cannot be said of the impact on Middle Easterners. The occupation of Iraq, the unqualified support for Israel's coercive and expansionist policies, the continuing support for authoritarian regimes, the brutal counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism techniques, and the deeply worrying doctrine of pre-emptive coercion (detention, torture, economic sanctions and war) have very real and catastrophic consequences for millions of Middle Easterners and serve to strengthen the political influence of precisely those extremist and anti-Western forces the West is seeking to suppress.

Guy Dinmore reports on Republican dissent from Bush's Long War policy in US right questions wisdom of  Bush's democracy policy Financial Times 05/30/06.  He writes:

Neo-conservative commentators at the American Enterprise Institute wrote last week what amounted to an obituary of the Bush freedom doctrine.

"Bush killed his own doctrine," they said, describing the final blow as the resumption of diplomatic relations with Libya. This betrayal of Libyan democracy activists, they said, came after the US watched Egypt abrogate elections, ignored the collapse of the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon, abandoned imprisoned Chinese dissidents and started considering a peace treaty with Stalinist North Korea.

This is part of what the "stab-in-the-back" alibi looks like.  The hardline conservatives of the less forthright variety have to find their way to a position that blames the loss in the Iraq War - and the less-than-spectacular results of the Afghanistan War to date - on The Liberals.   Since Bush, Cheney and Rummy have been running the foreign policy show for the last 5 1/2 years, that's kind of a challenging task for them right now.  But they're getting there.  Dinmore is reporting some signs of a "Bush sold out to The Liberals" line being eagerly manufactured.  Dimore also writes:

Graham Fuller, former diplomat and intelligence officer, suggests the US is suffering from "strategic fatigue" brought on by "imperial over-reach".

"The administration's bark is minimised, and much of the bite seems gone," he writes in the Nixon Center's National Interest journal. "Has superpower fatigue set in? Clearly so, to judge by the administration's own dwindling energy and its sober acknowledgment that changing the face of the world is a lot tougher than it had hoped."

The article is scheduled to appear in the Summer 2006 issue of The National Interest; an excerpt is posted here at Graham Fuller and Superpower Fatigue Washington Realist blog 05/17/06.  The direct continuation of the quote is:

Of course, some degree of wear and tear is normal five years into any administration, regardless of policies. But fatigue emerges in direct proportion to the ambitiousness of the undertaking. From its early days, this administration adopted a strategic vision and peremptory posture whose implementation would prove exhausting under the best of circumstances. Administration documents and statements have regularly indicated that ”we are at the beginning” of “a long war” fought globally in well over one hundred countries, probably “lasting for decades”, until “victory over terrorism” is achieved. Even more, this is all ties in with “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” The task is Sisyphean, the enemy generalized, the goals unclear, the scope open-ended.

The taxing character of U.S. foreign policy betrays signs of morphing into “imperial over-reach.” And there should be no doubt that we are talking about empire here, albeit in a new form. Neoconservatives embrace the term openly, while the ultra-nationalists, headed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, do not disavow the concept. The extent of U.S. global reach - the overseas military installations and complex base-rights agreements that often dominate our relations with small nations, the peripatetic military-command representatives who overshadow ambassadors, a broad variety of active military presences, a worldwide intelligence and strike capability - are all well documented. The U.S. global “footprint” - a revealing word regularly employed by the Pentagon without irony - is massive and backed by the world’s most powerful military machine in history. While different in structure and intent than the British, French or even Roman imperial presence, current U.S. ambition for projection of power is sweeping. And pursuit of this goal generates ever newer challenges that quickly contribute to strategic fatigue.  (my emphasis)

I like the distinction he makes between "neoconservatives" (like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowtz) and the "the ultra-nationalists, headed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld".  I have the impression of a real distinction, even though Cheney clearly nurtered and enabled the neocons.  Some of the neocons seem to actually believe in their rhetoric of bringing democracy to the Middle East through wars of liberation.  Cheney and Rummy are just warmongers who would use any rhetoric that works to  facilitate their plans.

Also the use of "footprint", as in "we want to leave a light footprint in Afghanistan", has become common to refer to the amount of US military presence (soldiers, airfields, bases).  I don't believe the obvious metaphorical implication that the targeted countries are mean to be put under the foot of the US had occurred to me before.

Matthew Rothschild at The Progressive also harshes on Bush over the Cold War analogy in Bush at West Point: Vows Long Middle Eastern War, Spreads the Fallacy of the Cold War Analogy 05/27/06:

“So long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place where terrorists foment resentment and threaten American security,” [Bush] said. He added, a few sentences later, “The message has spread from Damascus to Tehran that the future belongs to freedom, and we will not rest until the promise of liberty reaches every people and every nation.”

Since Bush delivers the promise of freedom by gunpoint and in a bomb crater, people in Syria and Iran ought to take note.

And we, as citizens of the United States, ought to take note, too, that Bush’s appetite for war is not yet sated.

Rothschild talks about how Bush used the Cold War analogy:

At West Point, Bush also spread the fallacy of the Cold War analogy to terrorism. He spent eleven paragraphs waxing nostalgic about the fight against Communism and exalting Harry Truman and his “ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom.”

Bush did so for a reason: He wants the American public to be at least as afraid of Al Qaeda as it was of Stalin's Soviet Union.

And so Bush did a crude compare-and-contrast. ...

Bush neglected to point out a much bigger difference: The terrorists cannot destroy the United States, however. Stalin could have.

Actually, Rothschild's chronology is a bit off there.  The USSR had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb before Stalin's death, which came in 1953.  But it wasn't until years later that they had the ICBM missiles that would have enabled them to "destroy the United States". 

Still, the larger point is well taken.  International jihadists can kill a lot of people.  But they are not the "existential" threat, a threat to the existence of the US itself, that the USSR at least had the military capability to be.

And Rothschild catches a phrase that didn't particularly register with me in Bush's speech:

But Bush wants us to think we face a challenge akin to the ones posed by Hitler and Stalin. Bush said that terrorists are trying to acquire “weapons of mass murder” - evidently, “weapons of mass destruction” is no longer the term of choice.

Colin Gray, writing on Stability Operations in Strategic Perspective: A Skeptical View in the US Army War College's journal Parameters Summer 2006 also challenges the administration's view of Bush's Long War:

Let us begin by identifying official US claims that are manifestly untrue. Americans are told that their enemy today seeks “to destroy our free way of life.” Terroristic foes, globally, are said to be the enemies of “freedom,” that magical, but alas contestable, value-charged concept again. So, Americans, and their armed forces in particular, are gearing up to wage the virtuous irregular, global fight on behalf of good against evil. But isn’t this highly idealized view of the strategic context a notable distortion of reality? Is al Qaeda, including its franchised spin-offs and its imitators, at all interested in destroying “our free way of life”? I doubt it. Are those bad guys even the enemies of freedom? In their eyes they are not, nor may they be so identified in the eyes of key target populations.

We should reconsider whether it is accurate or helpful to postulate as the centerpiece of our national security policy a long global war against terrorists who are plotting our downfall. Of course, violent extremists are a menace and should be disposed of when possible. And of course a catastrophic marriage between such folk and weapons of mass destruction is a threat we must approach with the utmost seriousness. But, still, do we not flatter to deceive ourselves.  ...

We are in danger of inflating the significance of al Qaeda and its imitators and, as a consequence, of setting off boldly to wage a long global war that is considerably misconceived. Above all else, we are likely to mistake local discontents for evidence of the evil influence of the global enemies of freedom. As a result, the United States may be moved to employ its armed forces on inappropriate missions.  ...

The most potent force in both the 19th and 20th centuries was nationalism. It is probable that, notwithstanding the alleged erosion of frontiers by globalization, nationalism will be preeminent in the 21st century also. Naturally, terrorists and would-be insurgents will hijack issues of national pride opportunistically. If America overreacts to some evidence of terrorism, and is prone to interpret most political violence as proof of the unfolding of devious plans by religious extremists, it is likely to seek to apply the wrong medicine in line with its faulty diagnosis. American efforts to aid local stabilization could well backfire painfully, because a foreign presence would feed the discontent and contribute to the delegitimization of the extant authorities.  (my emphasis)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Another gratuitous Andrew Jackson post

I have my issues with Walter Russell Mead.  But I'd have to agree with this paragraph from a review he did, Old Hickory Switch The American Interest Spring 2006:

As the last American president to have fought in the Revolution, Jackson deserves to be numbered among the Founding Fathers of the Republic, and of that august company he is by no means the least. As a politician, he transformed the limited, republican government created in the Constitution into a much more direct and unmediated democratic system that endures to this day. As president, he first enunciated the theory of the Union that would guide Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, and he built a political consensus behind the use of force to compel South Carolina to accept Federal supremacy.

Requirements for the Long War: you weren't so attached to all that "dissent" stuff, were you?

The Bush administration's strategic perspective, to the extent it extends beyond conquering the Middle East and justifying big-bucks military projects like Star Wars, envisions the "global war on terrorism" (GWOT) as being the Long War.  A Long War that can justify huge military budgets, perpetual war and the maintenance of an increasingly lawless national security state at home for the indefinite future.

The US Army War College journal Parameters features a couple of article in its Summer 2006 editorial that present views of the Long War that fit into the broad administration ideology of the momen.

In The Long Small War: Indigenous Forces for Counterinsurgency, Lt. Col. Robert Cassidy presents a summary of lessons from various counterinsurgency wars that the military has looked to for lessons on how to fight wars like that in Iraq.  Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret.) looks at Challenges in Fighting a Global Insurgency.

Cassidy's article presents a fairly conventional review of four conflicts: the American war in the Philippines of a century ago, the French war in Indochina, the French war in Algeria and America's Vietnam War.  I don't doubt that each of them has lessons to teach on both the politics and military requirements of counterinsurgency.  But it's also worth remembering the outcomes of each of them.  The US crushed the Filipino resistance after hard fighting at a huge cost in life to the natives to whom we were carrying out our divine mission to civilize them.  France lost in Indochina and left.  France lost in Algeria and left.  The United States lost in Vietnam and left.  That picture doesn't look too promising for Bush's Long War.

Barno's article defines the Long War as "global counterinsurgency", as its title suggests.  His article is especially notable for the way he describes the management of information as part of the Long War.  Before getting too attached to the notion of the Long War as global counterinsurgency, it's worth remembering that for the neoconservatives, the military conquest of the Middle East is only a prelude to an indefinite struggle with China for world supremacy.

If it means having an endless series of war like the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, then a lot of people might wonder just how advantageous this whole World Supremacy gig really is.  So far, it hasn't even brought us cheaper gas.

Barno frames his concept of the Long War this way:

The strategic nature of war has changed, and our military and government are striving to adapt to fight and win in this new environment. Today we are engaged in a global counterinsurgency, an unprecedented challenge which requires a level of original strategic thought and depth of understanding perhaps comparable only to that of the Cold War. Our ongoing political-military actions to achieve success in Iraq and Afghanistan are simply subordinate efforts of this larger, complex world war.  (my emphasis)

And he defines his global counterinsurgency this way:

We as a military are at risk of failing to understand the nature of the war we are fighting - a war which has been characterized [by Gen. John P. Abizaid] as “a war of intelligence and a war of perceptions.”

Now, on the face of it, this could count as a recognition that political strategy has to drive military strategy.  But virtually no one denies that at a theoretical level.  The way he develops the notion is something that should send up red flags for his readers.

Barno relies on the concept of Fourth Generation warfare, a conceptual framework that theoretically would allow the US to maximize its effectiveness against both conventional and guerrilla enemies, including terrorists.  But the descriptions of Fourth Generation warfare that are commonly put forth are so broad as to allow a wide range of approaches to fit their definitions.  It's not clear to what extent advocates like Barno are actually suggesting something new.

He uses two pyramid diagrams to make a point that seems to come down to the idea that The Terrorists get more benefit from media coverage than the US military, with Al Jazeera being the bogeyman in his example.  And he uses this as the pivot point to redefine the primacy of politics as essentially management of propaganda:

Unfortunately, winning more tactical-level battles in  a era of Fourth Generation Warfare does not lead inevitably to winning the war. In point of fact, with more and more responsibility for the operational and strategic levels of war shifting to joint organizations - a byproduct of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act - the military services have become more tactical in their focus, charged to “organize, train, and equip” rather than to “fight and win.” Service jargon is replete with references to “warfighting,” but rarely speaks of the vastly more important “war-winning.” The decisive strategic responsibility of “winning our wars” has been largely shifted away from the services toward others in the “joint world” with far shallower institutional, intellectual, and resource foundations.  (my emphasis in bold)

And, since the way to the disaster in Iraq was paved with bad Second World War analogies, we get to see this one in Barno's, which could be a Republican Party talking point straight off FOX News:

The line remains a fine one for commanders. In an environment where the enemy leverages global media to get out a recurrent message of hopelessness and despair, of carnage and fear, how do military leaders counter the overwhelming impression that all the victories are on the enemy’s side? How do we overcome the perception that every bombing or ambush resulting in American casualties signifies that we are “losing”? As some pundits have noted, if Americans at home had been able to watch the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy in real time on CNN from the first wave at Omaha beach, there would have been little hope in the public mind that the Third Reich would surrender just 11 months later! Some Americans might have clamored for a negotiated settlement. But no one in the global audience in 1944 viewed Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as the “moral equivalents” of the Allies, nor did any news organization in the West report on World War II as though it was a neutral observer at a sporting event. The Allies against the Axis was not a game show where the outcomes were unimportant to the average citizen, and the news media did not report on it as though they were neutral about the results.

Yeah, and if 2006's technology of nuclear weapons and ICBMs had been available to both sides in 1944, we would be writing discussions like this by carving them on stone tablets.

This example,though, lets us peek behind the curtain for the grand strategic rhetoric about Global Counterinsurgency.  It's kind of hard to miss the snarky suggestion that The Media today treat democracy and violent Islamic extremism as "moral equivalents".  It takes John Birch Society levels of paranoia to imagine that.

But it also reflects the conventional lessons of the Vietnam War that the officer corps developed over the years since then.  In blaming "the media" for the loss of Will on the part of the public and Congress to continue fighting the Lost Cause in Vietnam, many have convinced themselves (apparently including Barno) that bad news coverage, and in particular the news coverage of the Tet Offensive in 1968, was the main military problem in that war.

Ironically, this has led to a kind of information management on the part of the military that actually repeated the loss of credibility by military spokespersons during the Vietnam War.  They constantly present upbeat assessment, constantly declare victory after victory, and put a positive spin on anything that happens.  So, to take a current example, the Marine massacre at Haditha was initially reported officially as the result of combat.  Now we learn that a group of Marines went renegade and deliberately executed a couple of dozen civilian noncombatants.

If this were an isolated case, that in itself wouldn't undermine public confidence in their information.  But after three years of cheery pep talks and upbeat reports from military spokesman, people can see that the insurgency in Iraq is growing, and now there's a civil war going on at the same time.  So only someone whose brain was pickled in OxyContin could fail to wonder what the disconnect is.

That's what is known as a "credibility gap".

Just how clueless Barno appears to be about this is shown here:

The public affairs component of this strategy deserves some discussion. In late 2004, General Richard Myers, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published a directive message explicitly separating public affairs from information operations in the US military, and he articulated some very powerful reasons why this separation should be so.18 US public affairs officers around the world cheered, but many commanders cringed. The work of winning a “war of ideas” was not made any easier for deployed commanders, but Myers’ point was a valid one - the recognition that we waged 21st-century warfare in the “spin zone” of both international media and domestic politics could not permit or excuse an environment where facts might be changed or reporters manipulated to deliberately create false perceptions.

Oh, no, Gen. Myers wouldn't think of creating even the appearance of such a thing!  This would be the same Gen. Myers that I like to quote at the start of posts on the Iraq War saying, ""

Referring to our recent adventures in the Middle East and Asia, Barno writes:

Our US information operations doctrine was designed for a different era and in many ways simply did not fit the war we were fighting. It doctrinally bundled together “apples, oranges, pianos, Volkswagens, and skyscrapers” into one package - psychological operations, operational security, military deception, offensive and defensive computer network operations, and electronic warfare.  This official collection of disparate conceptual entities did little to assist us in our struggle to understand and operate in a war that was ultimately about winning hearts and minds, and about keeping our side resolutely in the fight.

The enemy instinctively seemed to understand how to exploit the media (international and local), tribal customs and beliefs, rumors and cultural predispositions toward mystery and conspiracy, and a host of other subtle but effective communications. Al Qaeda and the Taliban targeted their messages to influence both decision  and ordinary people - in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in the Gulf region, in Europe, in the United States, and across a global audience. A blatant lie or obviously false claim by the Taliban would resonate throughout the cultural system of Afghanistan down to every valley and village, and it would be next to impossible to subsequently counter such falsehoods with facts. In a tribal society, rumors count, emotions carry huge weight, the extreme seems plausible, and “facts” reported outside the trusted confines of family, village, and tribe are subject to great skepticism. This “local” phenomenon carried weight throughout the region and is arguably the norm across much of the Islamic world. (my emphasis)

But any idea that this situation  rumors in the tribal networks can be overcome with better information management by the military, i.e., more clever propaganda and more secrecy, is largely wishful thinking.  In practice, it leads to seeding false news stories that wind up in American papers (like the Iranian "yellow star" story) and concealing information from the American public.  Which can work in the short term.  But in the long run, it makes a chronic credibility gap.

And, to a large extent, in practice manipulating public opinion at home is the point of the approach Barno recommends.  Even the only point.  As he says in the passage just quoted, the Long War is ultimately about "keeping our side resolutely in the fight".  Toward the end of the article, he gets more explicit about the fact that the "hearts and minds" that are the object of Long War information war are those of American voters:

Finally, a growing phenomenon subtly capitalized on by our terrorist enemies is the instant politicization of distant battlefield events (especially reverses) in the American political process here at home. There are surely disturbing echoes of the bitter political contentiousness of Vietnam in today’s party-centric debates over the nature and strategy of this war, but that debate also reflects a healthy symptom of politics in a free society. That said, it is unfortunate that in an era of continuous electoral politics, somehow successful activities in this war - from battles won to elections held to civil affairs projects completed - seem to be scored as “wins” for the present Administration, while tactical setbacks, bombings, heavy casualties, or local political reverses are construed as “losses,” and seem to somehow be twisted to add to the political capital of the opposition party. Although largely unintentional, this perverse situation is flat-out wrong, and it does a disservice to our fighting men and women in harm’s way. Wars should always supercede “politics as usual,” especially in an age of Fourth Generation Warfare with the enemy deliberately targeting decisionmakers on the home front as part of its premeditated strategy. There was a time in American politics, especially in time of war, when politics stopped at the water’s edge and our friends and enemies alike saw a unified, bipartisanapproach to  policy from American elected leaders. In the current “long war,” fought out 24/7 under the bright lights of continuous talk shows, and where resolve, staying power, and American and allied unity are the very principles that the enemy is  desperately trying to undermine, that once respected bipartisan principle in our foreign policy needs to be recaptured.  (my emphasis)

Keep in mind that our infallible generals having been positioning themselves since early 2005 if not earlier to claim that nothing that went wrong in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars is the fault of the military.  And ultimately Republican conservatives will want to make their way to a stab-in-the-back version of the Iraq War in particular in which The Media (which the Bircher types will none-too-subtly suggest is Jewish-controlled), traitorous Liberals and cowardly Democrats in Congress like John Kerry and Jack Murtha undercut our infallible generals who won brilliant victory after brilliant victory.

It's kind of hard for Republicans to do that right now, since it's a Republican President's war that has been supported down the line just as he asked by a Republican Congress.  But part of the way they will try to get there is by the kind of argument Barno makes in the passage just quoted.

He presents a highbrow version of the argument.  Parameters is not the Sean Hannity show.  But all the pieces of the stab-in-the-back position are there.  He says the Democrats are instantly politicizing everything about the war.  Is that how things are happening in OxyContin Land?  Because that's certainly not what's happening in this universe.  The Democrats as a group have been notable for their timidity in criticizing even the most obvious problems about the war.

He connects his reference to "today's party-centric debates" over foreign policy to the perceived stab-in-the-back in the Vietnam War.  Again, what universe is it in which things are happening that way?  The partisan part is true today in the sense that most of the criticism of the Iraq War is coming from Democrats.    But during the Vietnam War, both support and criticism of the Vietnam War were bipartisan.  Democratic Senator William Fulbright was one of the fiercest critics of the war under Johnson, joined by people like Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern.  During the Nixon administration, Republican Senators like Mark Hasfield and Jacob Javits, along with House members like Pete McCloskey, were outspoken critics of Nixon's policies.

And so far, nothing like the restrictions that Congress mandated on Nixon over that war, such as the ban of US troops in Cambodia after a certain date, have been imposed by the Republican Congress.  As long as Congress totally supports the President on the war right down to his torture policy, which it has (the McCain Levin bill notwithstanding), how can there be a stab in the back?

Besides, Bush and Rummy are constantly telling us that they are giving the generals anything and everything they request to fight the war.  Where's the civilian stab in the back there?  They're lying, of course, but it does make it harder for Republicans to make the argument in real time.  Not that it stops people like Barno from trying.

Criticism of the war makes the war critics accomplices of The Enemy, he tells us.  It immediately endangers the lives of our soldiers.  Which effectively defines anything and everything that might affect public "resolve, staying power, and American and allied unity" as an immediately military concern and a real-time threat to the lives of US soldiers on the battlefield.  It's an argument for criminalizing dissent.

One last observation on that paragraph.  Though he's arguing explicitly that any domestic criticism of Bush's war policies by Democrats aids The Enemy, he does something you often see from authoritarian Republicans.  He tosses in, practically as a sneer, "that debate also reflects a healthy symptom of politics in a free society".  And then follows it immediately by, "That said, it is unfortunate ... "

No, Gauleiter Borno, it is not "symptom" of something healthy in the "politics of a free society".  It's democracy.  It's how the American system of government and the American Constitution works.  You know that favorite slogan of jingo Republicans, "Love it or leave it"? Maybe you should check out Kazakhstan.  That might be a more congenial political environment for you.

In light of this, the statement of his that I quoted above, "The decisive strategic responsibility of “winning our wars” has been largely shifted away from the services toward others in the “joint world” with far shallower institutional, intellectual, and resource foundations", takes on a somewhat more ominous cast.

Barno's article does have some worthwhile observations on the difficulties the US encounters in fighting societies in which clan loyalties and the related elaborate honor code are the main basis of social organization, which is the case in Afghanistan and much of Iraq.

But with all the generosity in the world, it's hard to look at his concluding arguments in the context of his article as anything but arguments for authoritarian government in the US:

As a military charged with fighting this new type of war, a global insurgency, we must better grasp ownership of the fight. In some sense, as society’s trustee in the conduct of our nation’s wars, we must accept the full range of war, tactical to strategic level. After all, winning wars - and preventing them - are the only reasons our military exists. If we as a nation or a member of a coalition are ultimately defeated by our enemies, the reasons for that defeat - whether military, political, or economic - will be far less important than the result.

And he argues all-but-explicitly that is the role of the military in the current situation to actively support the Republican Party:

The military’s role in addressing this asymmetrical “war of wills” is hyper-sensitive. This predicament is a very real problem inherent in 21st-century warfare, and the military needs to understand and support the civilian leadership in defending this flank. Bipartisan recognition and defense of this Achilles’ heel is also necessary to deprive our enemies of its effect. America’s military contribution needs to evolve toward designing a war-winning series of campaigns and, perhaps even more important, helping our civilian leadership to craft the broad political-military grand strategy necessary to succeed against a dangerous and resourceful enemy in this “long war.” We as a military must fully understand, accept, and take ownership of “war-winning” as well as “war-fighting” if we are to fulfill our role in defending the society we are pledged to serve. If this conflict is truly a “long war” against violent global extremism, against an ideology of hate and destruction as dangerous as fascism in the 1930s and communism in the 1950s, then we as a military have to take on the institutional and intellectual challenges to fight and to win this very different war against a determined and dangerous enemy.

This sounds very much like the strategy pursued in Fallujah, where the city was largely emptied and a large part of it wrecked completely in order to save it from the insurgents.  Barno argues that to win by discarding outdated concepts, like freedom to criticize the government's military policies.  Or partisan opposition.  In his argument, those are frivolous luxuries that we should dispense with for the duration of the Long War.  Destroy democracy in order to save it.

The fact that this article made it past the editors of Parameters - which is a scholarly journal, even though it's published by a part of the US Army - is an indication how far the Republican Party and the Christian Right have pushed the parameters (ouch!) of respectable discourse in the direction of authoritarianism.

But they'll want us to still have elections, I'm sure, just like in Iraq.  As Shakira puts it in her song "Timor":

It's alright, it's alright
Just as long as we can vote
We live in a democracy
And that's what we promote
Isn't it, isn't it

Bush on the Long War

Bush has always sought out military audiences at every opportunity during his Presidency.  On Saturday, he addressed the graduating class at West Point:  President Delivers Commencement Address at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Mitchie Stadium, United States Military Academy at West Point 05/27/06.  President Mission Accomplished sat out to cast himself as a new Harry Truman, rallying the nation against a decades-long adversary:

Fortunately, we had a President named Harry Truman, who recognized the threat, took bold action to confront it, and laid the foundation for freedom's victory in the Cold War.

President Truman set a clear doctrine. In a speech to Congress, he called for military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey, and announced a new doctrine that would guide American policy throughout the Cold War. He told the Congress: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." With this new doctrine, and with the aid to back it up, Greece and Turkey were saved from communism, and the Soviet expansion into Southern Europe and the Middle East was stopped.

Truman would have gagged to think a character like George W. Bush was posing himself in Truman's image.  But that obviously doesn't discourage our President.

On Saturday, he sat out to declare the Long War as the rightful successor to the Cold War.  Bush and his supporters believe that they've found the ideology - and the related scare tactics - to establish the national security state, with its Unilateral Executive ruling above the law, for the indefinite future.  His pitch goes like this:

Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before - and like Americans in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory. (Applause.) The enemies we face today are different in many ways from the enemy we faced in the Cold War. In the Cold War, we deterred Soviet aggression through a policy of mutually assured destruction. Unlike the Soviet Union, the terrorist enemies we face today hide in caves and shadows - and emerge to attack free nations from within. The terrorists have no borders to protect, or capital to defend. They cannot be deterred - but they will be defeated. America will fight the terrorists on every battlefront, and we will not rest until this threat to our country has been removed.

While there are real differences between today's war and the Cold War, there are also many important similarities.  Like the Cold War, we are fighting the followers of a murderous ideology that despises freedom, crushes all dissent, has territorial ambitions, and pursues totalitarian aims.  Like the Cold War, our enemies are dismissive of free peoples, claiming that men and women who live in liberty are weak and lack the resolve to defend our way of life.  Like the Cold War, our enemies believe that the innocent can be murdered to serve a political vision. And like the Cold War, they're seeking weapons of mass murder that would allow them to deliver catastrophic destruction to our country.  If our enemies succeed in acquiring such weapons, they will not hesitate to use them, which means they would pose a threat to America as great as the Soviet Union.

Against such an enemy, there is only one effective response: We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory.

Bush's current approach is to promise Victory in Iraq.  As Sid Blumenthal just wrote:

Bush doesn't know that he can't achieve victory. He doesn't know that seeking victory worsens his prospects. He doesn't know that the U.S. military has abandoned victory in the field, though it has been reporting that to him for years. But the president has no rhetoric beyond "victory."   (From "Victory"? Forget It Salon 05/25/06)

And he positions the Long War ideology in relation to his current military threats against Iran:

Our strategy to protect America is based on a clear premise: The security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. And we learned an important lesson: Decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.  So long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place where terrorists foment resentment and threaten American security.

So we are pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. I believe the desire for liberty is universal - and by standing with democratic reformers across a troubled region, we will extend freedom to millions who have not known it - and lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.

We're still in the early stages of this struggle for freedom and, like those first years of the Cold War, we've seen setbacks, and challenges, and days that have tested America's resolve.  Yet we've also seen days of victory and hope.  We've seen people in Afghanistan voting for the first democratic parliament in a generation.  We have seen jubilant Iraqis dancing in the streets, holding up ink-stained fingers, celebrating their freedom.  We've seen people in Lebanon waving cedar flags and securing the liberty and independence of their land.  We've seen people in Kyrgyzstan drive a corrupt regime from power and vote for democratic change.  In the past four years alone, more than 110 million human beings across the world have joined the ranks of the free - and this is only the beginning.  The message has spread from Damascus to Tehran that the future belongs to freedom - and we will not rest until the promise of liberty reaches every people and every nation.  (my emphasis)

From Damascus to Tehran.  The two targets that the neocons had in mind after the invasion of Iraq when they talked about making "a left turn [Syria] or a right turn".  Of course, the Iraq War hasn't turned out to be the cakewalk they expected.

Bringing "the promise of liberty" to "every people and every nation" of the world through Iraq-style wars of liberation promises to be a Long War indeed.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Shrub and Laura getting divorced! (It's no more fantastic than WMDs in Iraq, is it?)

Media Matters is going after the latest round of Clinton Freakout among the pathetic grandees of our "press corps":  Coming soon to The New York Times? Globe reports Bush marriage breakup 05/26/06.

The Daily Howler may have hit on the right explanation.  Maybe the David Broders and Timmy Russerts of the world are actually androids, secretly foisted on us by space aliens:

The Howler suggests we could call them the "I-Pod People".

Nothing in normal human experience prepares us for this mind-numbing crew. ...

By normal standards, these creatures aren’t human. By normal standards, they’re out of their minds.

By normal standards, these creatures aren’t human. And yet, they steward our national discourse!  ... By normal standards, they’re out of their minds.  It’s very hard - extremely hard - to explain this situation to voters.

According to Occam's Razor, in trying to explain a phenomenon, one should not make more than the minimum of assumptions needed to explain it.  It's called the principle of parsimony.

By that standard, the Howler's explanation seems to be consistent with Occam's Razor.

Jerry Brown running for California Attorney General

Having Jerry Brown as the state attorney general in California would be a very interesting experience.  Especially if Schwartzenegger somehow manages to get himself re-elected.

This is a good sketch of Jerry with quite a bit on his background: Ever a wild card, Brown runs for top cop post by Jim Herron Zamora San Francisco Chronicle 05/15/06.

Zamora explains something I either never knew or had forgotten, how Jerry got tagged with his most famous nickname:

After Brown suggested that California launch its own telecommunications satellite, Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko in 1977 dubbed him "Governor Moonbeam." About 15 years later, Royko disavowed the nickname, saying it was unfair. But the moniker stuck - especially among Brown's Republican critics. They plan to resurrect it this fall if he wins in June.

Zamora makes an interesting observation, that Brown significantly redefined the political offices he has held since 1970: California secretary of state, governor, mayor.  He would be expected to do so with the attorney general's job, as well.  And I'm confident that he will.  Zamora writes:

Despite being the son of a governor, Brown was elected secretary of state in 1970 as an outsider preaching the mantra of reform and change. In that office, he sued powerful oil companies for illegal campaign donations and argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1974, Brown was elected governor, succeeding Ronald Reagan.

Brown radically changed that office as well. Some changes were cosmetic. He drove an old Plymouth around Sacramento and lived in a spartan apartment within walking distance of the Capitol -- rejecting the limousine and governor's mansion preferred by Reagan. (He still often walks to work in downtown Oakland.) He appointed more women, blacks, Latinos and Asians to state positions than all his predecessors combined. Some things he supported such as carpool lanes, solar energy, recycling and water conservation measures are no longer controversial. Others, such as his support of gay rights, remain hot-button issues three decades later. ...

As governor, Brown ran for president twice - 1976 and 1980 - making a big national splash each time before losing to Jimmy Carter. He also made headlines when he took singer Linda Ronstadt on an African safari.

By 1982, his critics caught up with him. Voters rejected his bid for the U.S. Senate. After that defeat, Brown went on sabbatical from politics and studied Zen Buddhism in Japan, then volunteered with Mother Teresa in India.

Jerry, now 68, lived in a commune in a converted warehouse during most of his tenure as Oakland mayor, which ends this year.  Last year, he married for the first time to a former Gap executive, who now serves as his campaign manager, and settled down to a more conventional lifestyle.

But serving as attorney general, he's not likely to be entirely conventional in his approach to crime and the justice system.

"The very ur-conspiracy theory of American history"

Actually, I'm more inclined to think that the "ur-conspiracy theory" of US history would be that of the Anti-Masonic Party, an anti-Jacksonian party that appeared during the days of Andrew Jackson's Presidency.  (The Anti-Masons started an enduring American political tradition, the national party convention.)

But the phrase is a catchy one.  Kevin Baker used it in a 2000 essay, Another Day of Infamy: Congress is trying to legislate the history of what happened on the eve of Pearl Harbor.

The occasion of his column was a rider that some die-hard rightwingers in Congress had somehow managed to attach it to a defense bill that passed both Houses of Congress.  It called for the poshumous restoration of their ranks to Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short.  As Baker explains:

Kimmel and Short were, respectively, the Navy and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese sneak attack there; they were demoted upon their subsequent forced retirements. Asking to restore their ranks is the most, legally, that our national legislature can do. The final decision will rest with the President. Congress would like him to exculpate both men, because they "were not provided necessary and critical intelligence ... that would have alerted them to prepare for the attack."

This last line is the rub. It passes the buck for the fiasco at Pearl Harbor to the high command in Washington at the time, most prominently President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall. In so doing, it gives credence to the very ur-conspiracy theory of American history, the notion that Roosevelt or Marshall or both knew the Japanese attack was coming but deliberately kept the Pearl Harbor garrison in the dark, in order to maneuver America into World War II.  (my emphasis)

His article is a good sketch of that particular whopper, which Roosevelt-haters latched onto as soon as they could find some half-credible reason to do so.  The theory lives on, mostly among today's Old Right isolationists.  Yet another reason that I'm always hesitant to cite their analyses of the Iraq War.  And it seems that military history book clubsare always willing to promote yet another rehash of the tale.

Baker continues:

A series of military and congressional investigations in the 1940s sought to answer this very question. Their general conclusions were the same as those of a 1995 Pentagon review, which determined that responsibility for the defense of Pearl Harbor that terrible day "should be broadly shared" but that "the intelligence available to Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short was sufficient to justify a higher level of vigilance than they chose to maintain."

The vast majority of historians concur, and they are supported by the facts. There was plenty of infamy to go around for Pearl Harbor. The high command in Washington did blunder in not sharing every last scrap of information it had with Kimmel and Short. For that matter, even a garrison that knew the very moment of the Japanese attack would have had trouble resisting it, what with our unforgivable lack of preparedness more than two years after the rest of the world had marched off to war.

Yet Washington did pass on ample warnings that war might be imminent. ...

One is tempted to be flippant and ask, "Just what part of 'This dispatch is to be considered a war warning' didn't you understand?," but that would be unfair.

But not too unfair. 

Baker's essay doesn't say who had sponsored the particular rider on which he focuses.  But this article indicates that South Carolina's Dixicrat-Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, the inveterate racist who fathered a daughter with a black lover, was pushing this rehabilitation effort: A Special Report: Resurrecting the Kimmel Case by Fred Schultz  Naval History Magazine July/Aug 1995.

This piece from Salon gives a quick look at the "ur-conspracy theory" on Pearl Harbor:  Did FDR know? by Judith Greer 06/14/01

As she points out, it's a conspiracy theory that sometimes snares some leftwingers, as well.  That makes them eccentric almost by definition.  But the two examples she cites didn't need a Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory to give them that label:

The "FDR knew" conspiracy theory was revived again last week in a tendentious article in the New York Press by the left-wing contrarian Alexander Cockburn, who also revives the usual dishonest rhetorical habits of FDR's accusers. Cockburn cites, for example, a 1999 article in Naval History magazine that claims to "prove" FDR's prior knowledge by citing the fact that the Red Cross secretly ordered large quantities of medical supplies to be sent to the West Coast and shipped extra medical personnel to Hawaii before the attack.

These facts, like so many of those cited as proof of FDR's vile plot, can be explained quite readily without resort to the idea of a conspiracy. FDR had pledged to keep America out of foreign wars. At the same time, he was aware that our diplomatic efforts with the Japanese were only likely to buy us time, not permanently prevent war. No responsible leader could neglect the responsibility to be ready for any eventuality, but FDR also wouldn't have wanted the press to become aware of the necessary preparations. That would have been a political disaster and might have derailed his effort to quietly enhance our capabilities before war broke out.

Populist horsefly Gore Vidal, in the course of a book review in the Nation in September 1999, and again in a November 1999 (London) Times Literary Supplement article titled "The Greater the Lie," also lent credence to the "FDR knew" theory by praising - I can only assume without having read - the most notorious recent restatement of the theory, Robert B. Stinnett's book "Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor," first published in 1999 and new in paperback this month. (Vidal also presents the theory in his latest novel, "The Golden Age.")

Stinnett - whose previous historical work was a suck-up treatment of the elder George Bush's war years - purported to have new, recently declassified documents to support the idea that FDR was involved in a depraved political plot against our brave boys in uniform. But despite the book's surface appearance of being an earnest and meticulous investigation - complete with lengthy footnotes and reproductions of dozens of important-looking bits of paper - it's not hard for a careful reader to see the bilge water pouring out of it.

Incidentally, copious footnoting is a pervasive feature in what RichardHofstadter called the "highbrow" paranoid style.  Conspiracy-mongers of the more literate variety are eager to show pseudo-scholarly support for their claims.  Claims that normally, as in this case, don't hold up to any serious scrutiny.  Greer continues her description of the Stinnett book:

It's not just that Stinnett's "evidence" - if it can be dignified as such - is at best ambiguous and circumstantial. It's not just that his theory, like most classic conspiracy theories, conflicts with reams of other available evidence and tries to make us believe two or more mutually exclusive things before breakfast. It's also not just that he - for all his apparently knowledgeable blather and the truckload of "documentation" he dumps on us - apparently doesn't understand some important realities of cryptology and signals intelligence. It's not even that it is impossible to believe that Roosevelt - who was, without a doubt, wily and subtle - might have perpetrated such a Machiavellian plot. No, the real reason to think there's no pony in this pile is Stinnett's relentlessly dishonest - dare I say "deceitful"? - characterizations of documents, incidents and testimony.

As with other such conspiracy books, "Day of Deceit" received reviews in responsible academic journals like Intelligence and National Security that demolished it, citing its nonexistent documentation, misdirection, ignorance, misstatements, wormy insinuations and outright falsehoods. The consensus among intelligence scholars was "pretty much absolute," CIA senior historian Donald Steury told me in an e-mail. Stinnett "concocted this theory pretty much from whole cloth. Those who have been able to check his alleged sources also are unanimous in their condemnation of his methodology. Basically, the author has made up his sources; when he does not make up the source, he lies about what the source says." In other words, even if Roosevelt were genuinely guilty of these charges, "Day of Deceit" couldn't possibly convict him.

This is also a good point about the FDR-planned-Pearl-Harbor kind of conspiracy theories:

One of the things that is most notable about the way the "FDR knew" theory is sustained is that its methodology parallels that of so-called creation science. The trick in both instances is to assiduously ignore all the mountains of evidence in favor of the theory you are trying to disprove and to focus instead on tiny apparent discrepancies and supposed "missing links" in the record. "True to the M.O. of all conspiracy theorists," [Stephen] Budiansky notes, "the ABSENCE of further documentary evidence actually confirms [the] thesis by proving that a'cover-up' has taken place."  ...

The conspiracy theorists, in parallel with the creationists who maintain that God must have placed fossils in the ground to test his people's religious faith, also think that Roosevelt and his political allies managed not only to cover up their dastardly deeds but to fabricate thousands of linear feet of documents in order to camouflage the truth. It is perhaps remotely possible that some kind of massive effort of that kind was instituted here in America in the midst of wartime, but unless we want to believe that our former enemies have destroyed or manufactured material to burnish Roosevelt's reputation, evidence from Japanese archives also backs up the idea that the attack was a surprise to FDR.

Linda Goetz Holmes, for instance, a Pacific war historian with the Interagency Working Group at the National Archives and author of the book "Unjust Enrichment: How Japan's Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs," told me about the findings of a Japanese historian whose research in his country's recently declassified files only became available in the U.S. in 1998. He revealed considerable documentary evidence of Japanese satisfaction with how well "our magnificent deception" was working in Washington.  (my emphasis)

Sometimes I think that old conspiracy theories never fade away, they just keep being recycled with marginally altered packaging.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Iran, Iraq, Russia, the US and Iran's nuclear program

Steve Soto (The Left Coaster 05/26/06) writes:

After waiting for an answer from the Bush Administration to its offer for direct talks on Iraq’s future, Iran today withdrew the offer and decided instead to work with all neighboring states on a regional solution, rather than involve the US. This came after Iraq sided with Iran on its development of a nuclear energy program, and after Russia gave the finger to Bush and went ahead with selling surface-to-air missile systems to Iran.

That's an interesting new set of complications.  Here are the stories he references:

Iranian envoy rejects U.S. talks on Iraq by Kim Gamel, Yahoo! News/AP 05/26/06

Iraqi Minister Backs Iran on Nuclear Research by Richard Oppel, Jr. and John O'Neil  New York Times/Ali Jasim/Reuters 05/26/06:

The meetings in Baghdad were the first opportunity for the new government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq to tackle what is sure to be one of the most divisive issues facing his government: the relationship and influence that Iran wields in Iraq, which was a bitter enemy of Iran when Saddam Hussein was in power but whose new government contains many Shiite leaders who want close ties to Tehran.

Russia to honour Iran arms deal BBC News  05/26/06

Saudi Arabia and counterterrorism

MIlitary analyst Anthony Cordesman testified on 11/08/05 to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the topic of whether Saudi Arabia should be considered supportive or hostile to the United States.  An adapted version of his testimony appears in Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe in the War on Terror?  by Anthony Cordesman Middle East Policy Spring 2006.  (His testimony as presented to the Committee can be found at this link.)

He stresses throughout that a utopian insistence on immediate democracy in Arab countries - the ideological goal of the neoconservatives - is highly risky.  (Whether "democracy" means more to them than "pro-Bush-administration" in practice is a different question.)  He writes:

At a minimum, workable "democracy" means taking the time to create government with strong checks and balances. It means priority for human rights and the rule of law over the simple
act of voting. It means creating functional political parties capable of both serving the
nation and looking beyond one man, one vote, one time. Pure democracy has never
worked in any state. Sufficiently crude democracy is little better.

Juan Cole has just reported on some of the practical difficulties in the Bush policy as it's actually implemented in the case of Egypt in The Egyptian sphinx lashes out at Washington Salon 05/25/06.  As that and other examples show, the notion that democracy equates to elections is a dangerous and unrealistic one.

Cordesman provides a general summary of the long-term economic and demographic issues facing the mostly Muslim Middle East and North Africa (MENA) area.  He emphasizes that rapid changes to conditions the US considers desirable is not a realistic approach for American counterterrorism strategy:

We can only win the “war on terrorism” if we accept the need to work systematically and consistently with friendly regimes and moderates and reformers in the region for evolutionary change. If we posture for our own domestic political purposes, call on other faiths and cultures to become our mirror image, or demand the impossible, we will further
undercut our influence and breed more anger and resentment.

Many Americans across the political spectrum are rightly skeptical about Saudi Arabia's influence in the Islamic world.  Most of us that hear about the Puritanical version of Wahhabi Islam practiced by the majority of Saudis are disturbed by its many violations of human rights and dignity.

But we also need to be realistic about Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.  Conservative hawks are fond of equating Bin-Laden-type jihadism with Wahhabism.  This is not the case.  The Sunni jihadists' religious views are more usually radical, violent Salafist Islam.  Salafism is untraconservative in many ways, too, but it is not the same as Wahhabism.

The Saudis did play a role, though, in the creation of today's jihadism:

We need to remember that the United States put intense and consistent pressure on Saudi Arabia to aid Islamist freedom fighters in Afghanistan during the Cold War and that the United States then saw Saudi support of Islamists as a counterbalance to communism. We both were slow to see the risks of what we were doing and how extremist might take advantage of such efforts – just as Israel once made the mistake of aiding Islamists as what it hoped would be a counterbalance to the PLO.

Bob Dreyfuss elaborate on this topic in relation to American policy in his Devil's Game (2005).

Cordesman reminds us that the Saudis did actively cooperate with the US in the Iraq War:

Saudi Arabia has worked with the United States to mobilize Iraq’s neighbors in support of Iraq. Last year, it floated the idea of sending peace-keeping troops from Arab and Muslim countries not neighboring Iraq to Iraq to help with security (the United Nations welcomed the idea; the United States was lukewarm). Currently, it is working within the Arab League to try to bring Iraq’s various factions together to agree on a common future. This move has been welcomed by the United States.

And he discusses a number of ways in which the Saudis have actively supported counterterrorism efforts.  I was struck by this comment on the limits of fighting terrorist groups by following the money, aka, forensic accounting:

Saudi Arabia can still do more to fight terrorist financing – although U.S. Treasury experts have come to praise Saudi cooperation when they initially condemned it. We should understand, however, thatgovernmental efforts to control terrorist financing have sharp limits and have probably reached the point of diminishing returns.

Individuals in Saudi Arabia and many other Arab and Islamic countries will continue to support such organizations or their fronts, and regional governments can only do so much to limit such funding. Merrill Lynch’s estimates that the capital controlled by wealthy individuals in the Middle East rose by 29 percent during 2003-2004, to a level of approximately $1 trillion, raise serious questions about how much governments can do. Much of this capital is in private accounts outside the region, terrorist operations are only moderately expensive, and Merrill Lynch projects a further 9 percent annual rise in such holdings from 2004 to 2009.

Cordesman cautions against a too-easy acceptance of the favored neocon model that the key to beating terrorism (besides killing large numbers of people in preventive wars) is to free the populations from their current autocratic rulers:

More broadly, we [the US and Saudi Arabia] are two very different societies and cultures. Saudi Arabia has a population and a mix of clerics that are much more conservative than its ruling family, the Al Shaikh family (the descendents of Muhammad al Wahhab), and most top Saudi officials, intellectuals and businessmen.  The stereotype of political development in the West - a progressive people pushing against the resistance of a conservative regime - does not fit this society. Saudi Arabia also is very much a consensus society, and this means progress
is often slow and indirect.

He discusses a number of ways that the Saudi rulers are trying to promote a version of Islman mass encouraging to violence and terrorism:

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a three-year program to overhaul its educational system. Materials deemed offensive are being purged from textbooks, new teaching methods are being introduced, and programs to retrain public school teachers are being put in place. This is a multi-year effort and is extremely politically sensitive and difficult. Some outside pressure helps. Too much outside pressure fuels resistance and efforts by Islamic extremists.

Similarly, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs is in the midst of a program to put in place better monitoring of what is taught at religious schools and what is said in mosques. To date, Saudi Arabia reports that over 2,000 imams have been disciplined or dismissed for preaching extremism and intolerance. Saudi Arabia might well be able to take more action and take it more quickly, but my visits to Saudi Arabia – and talking to U.S. embassy officials and critics of the government – confirm that the effort is real.

He also relates that:

In September 2005, Saudi Arabia convened a conference of Islamic scholars at the initiative of King Abdullah. Representatives came from all over the world, including the United States, to discuss such issues as “extremism, intolerance, dealing with the other, the role of a Muslim minority in a non-Muslim state, the issuing of fatwas, terrorism....”

The recommendations of the scholars formed the basis of the Extraordinary Summit of members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which was held in Makkah in early December 2005.  This event was an important milestone in shaping thinking in the Muslim world about these issues, because Saudi Arabia, as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is the most important Islamic nation.

Along with China and Japan, "the Saudi government has been one of the largest buyers of U.S. debt instruments".

And the following is yet another sad commentary on the incompetence of the Bush administration.  Although it was surely motivated in part by the Saudis desire to cater to their friends of the Bush dynasty.  Cordesman writes:

Saudi Arabia quietly donated over $100 million to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The supplies are bought in the United States and distributed directly to those who need them.  In some cases, this aid arrived before federal or state aid arrived.  (my emphasis)

My own perspective is probably a bit more "Wilsonian" than Cordesman's.  An emphasis on human rights is important for American foreign policy, for moral as well as pragmatic reasons.  But the Iraq War has should have vividly reminded any Americans who have been paying attention of the severe risks of arrogance about imposing the American will onto countries and cultures and people of whom most of us understand very little - not even their language.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

US-Iranian diplomacy, 2001-3

"God may smile on us, but I don't think so." - anonymous Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh April 2006 on Bush administration plans to pressure Iran militarily

Gareth Porter has been following the diplomacy on both the Iraq War and the Iran Pre-War.  We're fortunate to have someone with his background looking at this aspect of things.  Porter is the author of A Peace Denied: The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement (1975), a key study of the diplomacy that led up the the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 and how the situation in Vietnam subsequently unravelled.

In Burnt Offering:  How a 2003 secret overture from Tehran might have led to a deal on Iran’s nuclear capacity - if the Bush administration hadn’t rebuffed it American Prospect 06/06/06 issue (accessed 05/22/06), he gives some fascinating details of the diplomatic initiative by Iran in 2003 which the hardliners in the administration sucessfully quashed.

As Gary Sick noted in Iran: Confronting Terrorism Washington Quarterly Autumn 2003,

Iran showed a willingness to cooperate with the US in anti-terrorism efforts immediately after the 9/11 attacks in 2001:

Although Iran officially opposed the subsequent U.S. attack on Afghanistan, it made no effort to interfere and even cooperated quietly on issues such as humanitarian relief, search and rescue, and other practical matters. After the Taliban government was deposed, Iran participated positively and creatively in the Bonn talks to establish a new interim government in Afghanistan, drawing rare praise from U.S. officials.10 At the Tokyo donors conference in January 2002, Iran pledged a total of $560 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan  - the largest donation of any developing country. Speculation emerged among pundits that this would be the beginning of a new U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Sick's 2003 article described the following situation just after Bush's January 2002 State of the Union speech famously including Iran in the "axis of evil".  He writes:

The United States also began asserting publicly that members of Al Qaeda were taking refuge in Iran across the border from western Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, put the U.S. case succinctly: “Hard-line, unaccountable elements of the Iranian regime facilitated the movement of Al Qaeda terrorists escaping from Afghanistan.”  The government in Tehran initially denied that any Al Qaeda partisans were in Iran. The very lengthy border between Iran and Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan is riddled with drug smuggling routes and is far from secure, however, and after some weeks, Iran announced that it had located Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters within its borders and that they were being returned to their countries of origin. Over the following year, the Iranian government detained and extradited more than 500 fugitives, largely volunteers from various Muslim countries who had gone to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the West.

Why would members of the Iranian security services look the other way or perhaps even facilitate the passage of these fugitives? No doubt money was the primary reason. Besides money, however, some hard-line elements may have also seen an opportunity to recruit agents or to incorporate some militant Afghan cadres into their own operations. One can only speculate, though, because neither Washington nor Tehran disclosed the identity of these individuals nor suggested their possible motives.

The Al Qaida-MEK offer

Porter's new article sheds considerable light on Iran's diplomatic calculations at that time.  He writes:

Bush’s axis-of-evil speech was followed by public charges and press leaks from the administration that Iran was deliberately “harboring” al-Qaeda cadres who had fled from Afghanistan. In fact, the Iranians had made a serious effort to cooperate with Washington on al-Qaeda, according to Leverett. When the administration requested that the Iranian government send more guards to the Afghan border to intercept al-Qaeda cadres, Iran did so. And when Washington asked Iran to look out for specific al-Qaeda leaders who had entered Iran, Iran put a hold on their visas.

The effect of the Bush administration’s signals of hostility was to discredit the idea of cooperation with Washington as a means of obtaining U.S. concessions to Iranian interests. Reflecting the mood in Tehran, in May 2002, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the idea of negotiations with the United States as useless.

After the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iran was willing to give the US access to the Al Qaida operatives it had captured in exchange for American agreement to suppress the Mujahadeen e Khalq (MEK), a terrorist group that "Saddam had used for acts of terror against non-Sunni Iraqis and Iran".  Iran also wanted mutual sharing of information on Al Qaeda and MEK.

The State Department was in favor of disarming MEK.  But the Pentagon, which was running Iraq, never got around to doing that.  Porter explains some of the behind-the-scenes action:

The neoconservatives had hopes of taking advantage of this break to advance the plan developed by Feith and his staff for regime change in Iran. It called for a covert operation in Iran using the MEK (reconstituted under a new name) for armed forays into Iran. But Bush seems to have balked at getting in bed with the MEK. Seeing an opening, Powell became personally involved in heading off the use of the MEK against Iran. Powell pursued the MEK issue with both Rice and Rumsfeld “on a number of occasions,” according to Wilkerson. When he learned that Rumsfeld had prevailed on the military in May to leave the MEK with most of its arms and to allow it to move freely in and out of its camp north of Baghdad, Powell wrote a stiff letter to Rumsfeld reminding him that the MEK were U.S. “captives, not allies.”

But the U.S. stance toward Iran was still stuck in an imperial mode of making unilateral demands on Tehran for further cooperation on al-Qaeda as a condition for further talks. In October 2003, Armitage said in congressional testimony that the United States would be open to a wide-ranging dialogue, but only after Iran had agreed to “turn over or share intelligence about all al-Qaeda members and leaders.” Meanwhile, the State Department cracked down on the MEK in the United States as a terrorist organization, but it could offer no information to Tehran on the MEK in return for such intelligence cooperation, as Iran had proposed. It was still constrained by the Hadley Rules from engaging in any reciprocity with Iran. And in the end, Rumsfeld and Cheney succeeded in getting the U.S. proconsul in Baghdad, Jerry Bremer, to countermand a decision by the heavily Shiite Iraqi Governing Council to repatriate the MEK to Iran.

Even though the MEK remains on the US list of terroristorganizations, the Pentagon is still hoping to use them against the Iranian regime.  And there have been reports of their taking military action inside Iran.

Porter's account sheds light on the situation described by Gary Sick in 2002 with the US accusing Iran of sheltering Al Qaida members, about the time these diplomatic iniatives were taking place.  Iran was holding Al Qaida figures as bargaining chips for dealing with the United States.  And it's entirely plausible that the Al Qaida figures in Iran that administration officials refer to now are still being held for bargaining chips.

There's nothing especially benign in that on Iran's part.  And we would all do well to remember Iran's duplicitous dealings with Ollie North and his rogue National Security Council foreign policy operation during the Reagan administration.  They got snookered by the Iranians big-time.  But it's important to see today's situation in the light of the diplomacy of recent years.

The larger offer of negotiations

But Iran's offer on the MEK was taking place on a separate track from a far broader offer at that time.  Without going into more details here, Iran's UN Ambassador presented a separate proposal for an exchange of information about MEK and Al Qaida essentially at the same time as the broader proposal.  I described the MEK-Al Qaida issue separately to address the questions that Sick raised in his article quoted above.

Porter describes the broader offer as follows:

In early 2003, the Iranians believed they had three new sources of bargaining leverage with Washington: the huge potential influence in a post-Saddam Iraq of the Iranian-trained and anti-American Iraqi Shiite political parties and military organizations in exile in Iran; the Bush administration’s growing concern about Iran’s nuclear program; and the U.S. desire to interrogate the al-Qaeda leaders Iran had captured in 2002.

As the United States was beginning its military occupation of Iraq in April, the Iranians were at work on a bold and concrete proposal to negotiate with the United States on the full range of issues in the U.S.-Iran conflict. Iran’s then-ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, the nephew of then–Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, drafted the document, which was approved by the highest authorities in the Iranian system, including the Supreme National Security Council and Supreme Leader Khamenei himself, according to a letter accompanying the document from the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, who served as an intermediary. Parsi says senior Iranian national security officials confirmed in interviews in August 2004 that Khamenei was “directly involved in the document.”

The proposal, a copy of which is in the author’s possession, offered a dramatic set of specific policy concessions Tehran was prepared to make in the framework of an overall bargain on its nuclear program, its policy toward Israel, and al-Qaeda. It also proposed the establishment of three parallel working groups to negotiate “road maps” on the three main areas of contention - weapons of mass destruction, “terrorism and regional security,” and “economic cooperation.”

The document was sent to Washington just in time for a meeting between Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif and Khalilzad in Geneva on May 2, 2003. One copy arrived at the State Department by fax, and a second copy was taken to State in person by an American intermediary, according to a source who has discussed the letter with the intermediary.

Porter discusses the specifics of that proposal at greater length in the American Prospect article.  In a separate article also released this week, he focuses in particular on the aspects of that proposal relating to Israel:  Iran Proposal to U.S. Offered Peace with Israel Inter Press Service 05/23/06.  There, he writes:

Iran offered in 2003 to accept peace with Israel and cut off material assistance to Palestinian armed groups and to pressure them to halt terrorist attacks within Israel's 1967 borders, according to the secret Iranian proposal to the United States.

Iran offered in 2003 to accept peace with Israel and cut off material assistance to Palestinian armed groups and to pressure them to halt terrorist attacks within Israel's 1967 borders, according to the secret Iranian proposal to the United States.

The two-page proposal for a broad Iran-U.S.agreement covering all the issues separating the two countries, a copy of which was obtained by IPS, was conveyed to the United States in late April or early May 2003. Trita Parsi, a specialist on Iranian foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies who provided the document to IPS, says he got it froman Iranian official earlier this year but is not at liberty to reveal the source.

The two-page document contradicts the official line of the George W. Bush administration that Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel and the sponsorship of terrorism in the region.

As we're watching what looks grimly like a replay of the buildup to war with Iraq in 2002-3, this time with Iran as the target, the 2003 Iranian diplomatic initiative takes on renewed significance.  And given the fact that Iran's hostility to Israel is a key point in the Iran hawks' arguments, Iran's offer to consider a drastic change in their relations to Israel is especially notable.  Porter writes in the IPS article:

Before the 2003 proposal, Iran had attacked Arab governments which had supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The negotiating document, however, offered "acceptance of the Arab League Beirut declaration", which it also referred to as the "Saudi initiative, two-states approach."

The March 2002 Beirut declaration represented the Arab League's first official acceptance of the land-for-peace principle as well as a comprehensive peace with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal to the territory it had controlled before the 1967 war. Iran's proposed concession on the issue would have aligned its policy with that of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others with whom the United States enjoyed intimate relations.

Another concession in the document was a "stop of any material support to Palestinian opposition groups (Hamas, Jihad, etc.) from Iranian territory" along with "pressure on these organizations to stop violent actions against civilians within borders of 1967".

Even more surprising, given the extremely close relationship between Iran and the Lebanon-based Hizbollah Shiite organisation, the proposal offered to take "action on Hizbollah to become a mere political organization within Lebanon".  (my emphasis)

In the American Prospect piece, Porter describes how the hardliners were able to brush off the Iranian offer of serious negotiations.  Aside from the general hostility of Cheney, Rummy and the neocons to Iran, a fortuitous (for them) incident occurred:

But on May 12, 2003, a terrorist bombing in Ryadh killed eight Americans and 26 Saudis. Rumsfeld and Feith seized the occasion to regain the initiative on Iran. Three days later, Rumsfeld declared, “We know there are senior al-Qaeda in Iran … presumably not an ungoverned area.” The following day someone obviously reflecting Rumsfeld’s views gave David Martin of CBS News an exclusive story. “U.S. officials say they have evidence the bombings in Saudi Arabia and other attacks still in the works were planned and directed by senior al-Qaeda operatives who have found safe haven in Iran,” Martin reported.

But in fact U.S. intelligence had no evidence that the Iranian government was intentionally allowing al-Qaeda to remain on Iranian soil. Contrary to Rumsfeld’s disingenuous statement, U.S. intelligence did not conclude that the government knew where the al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan were located in Iran. “The Iran experts agreed that, even if al-Qaeda had come in and out of Iran, it didn’t mean the Iranian government was complicit,” recalls Wilkerson. “There were parts of Iran where the government would not know what was going on.”

Nevertheless, within a few days, Rumsfeld and Cheney had persuaded Bush to cancel the May 21 meeting with Iranian officials. In a masterstroke, Rumsfeld and Cheney had shut down the only diplomatic avenue available for communicating with Iran and convinced Bush that Iran was on the same side as al-Qaeda.

Porter concludes by reminding us that Iran is again offering negotiations with the United States, this time much more publicly.  So far, it seems very uncertain whether Bush and his team are willingly to seriously pursue negotiations, or whether they are intent on bombing Iran.  As the history of the 2001-3 diplomacy shows, so far the Bush administration not only has been unwilling to go the "second mile" of which the Gospels speak; they haven't even been willing to go the first mile.