Tuesday, July 31

fat redux

Fat Lies
Obesity, laxity, and political correctness.
By William Saletan

Posted Thursday, July 26, 2007, at 5:21 PM ET

Obesity is contagious like a virus. Willpower can't contain it. Stop blaming and stigmatizing fat people.

That's how scientists and the press are spinning a new study about weight gain, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. The spin is politically correct but medically perverted. The study's findings tell exactly the opposite story: Obesity spreads culturally, individual decisions are crucial, and responsibility and stigma are part of the solution.

How did the story get twisted? Start with the contagion metaphor. The word contagious never appears in the original paper, written by Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and James Fowler of the University of California at San Diego. But it's all over their sound bites. "Obesity Is 'Socially Contagious,' " said the headline on UCSD's press release. Christakis told reporters that obesity can "spread from person to person like a fashion or a germ" and that "once it starts, it's hard to stop it. It can spread like wildfire." A government official who funded the research concluded, "It takes what was seen as a noninfectious disease (obesity) and shows it clearly has got communicable factors."

These metaphors spread rapidly through the media like … well, like bad metaphors. The New York Times ("Study Says Obesity Can Be Contagious") opened its report with the line, "Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus. …" The Los Angeles Times ("Obesity is 'contagious,' study finds") began, "Obesity can spread among a group of friends like a contagious disease," and added that the study showed a "pattern of contagion most often associated with infectious diseases." The Washington Post began, "Obesity appears to spread from one person to another like a virus or a fad. …"

The virus metaphor infected—actually, no, it didn't infect, it simply influenced—the authors' and the media's conclusions. "Treating people in groups may be more effective than treating them individually," Christakis argued. The Los Angeles Times paraphrased one expert's inference that "obesity treatment programs should move away from their emphasis on individual willpower." The Post said the results "lend support to treating people in groups or even whole communities." A warning against "relieving people of responsibility for watching their weight" vanished from the Post's article overnight.

Obviously, from a collective standpoint, it's more efficient to address obesity in a group than in one individual. But just as obviously, groups consist of individuals. And the gist of this study is that obesity did not spread through the sampled population like a virus or any other materially transmitted malady. It spread culturally, individual to individual, through the relaxation of standards of personal discipline.

Many scientists believe that in some cases, viruses literally cause obesity. Others point to genes or environmental constraints, such as fast-food joints, distances too great to walk, and a shortage of parks, sidewalks, and good grocery stores. Research suggests these factors do matter a lot—and to that extent, fat people deserve sympathy, not blame. But such factors can't account for the spread pattern documented in this study. Genetics can't explain it, since having a fat friend was more likely to predict a person's obesity than having a fat sibling was. Environmental constraints can't explain it, since faraway friends made a difference, while next-door neighbors didn't. Availability of food can't explain it, since friends had a bigger effect than spouses did. Nor can sheer imitative eating, since faraway friends had as big an effect as local friends did.

Cross off genes, viruses, environment, and imitation, and the only explanatory factor you're left with is, as the paper notes, each person's "perception of the social norms regarding the acceptability of obesity." In other words, culture. Moreover, the study documents obesity's differential spread not through an amorphous group but through a network. The point of differential spread though a network is that each node—in this case, each person's cultural decisions—matters.

The upshot of the data is that if you find yourself caught in a fattening social network, you have three options. You can resist the fattening norm. You can try to reverse it. Or you can ditch your fat friends.

That doesn't sound very nice. The study's authors certainly don't want to say it. In talking to the press, the Post notes, they "cautioned that people should not … stigmatize obese people." Likewise, an obesity expert from Yale warned the New York Times against "blaming obese people even more for things that are caused by a terrible environment." Fowler cautioned that studies "suggest that having more friends makes you healthier. So the last thing that you want to do is get rid of any of your friends." Christakis added, "We are not suggesting that people should sever ties with their overweight friends. But forming ties with underweight or normal weight friends may be beneficial to you."

Come on. Everything in the study belies these mealy-mouthed conclusions. To resist a fattening norm, you need willpower. To reverse it, you need to promote responsibility, which implies blame. You almost certainly need stigma. And realistically, to add normal or underweight friends to your circle, you have to relegate others who are overweight. That may be bad for your fat ex-friends, who will lose your friendship as well as your thinness. But it's fine for you, since you'll have just as many friends as before.

Maybe it's not nice to speak these truths. But maybe being nice, when you should be speaking the truth—especially to your friends—is the problem.

Monday, July 30

An Immoral Philosophy

The New York Times
July 30, 2007
An Immoral Philosophy

When a child is enrolled in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (Schip), the positive results can be dramatic. For example, after asthmatic children are enrolled in Schip, the frequency of their attacks declines on average by 60 percent, and their likelihood of being hospitalized for the condition declines more than 70 percent.

Regular care, in other words, makes a big difference. That’s why Congressional Democrats, with support from many Republicans, are trying to expand Schip, which already provides essential medical care to millions of children, to cover millions of additional children who would otherwise lack health insurance.

But President Bush says that access to care is no problem — “After all, you just go to an emergency room” — and, with the support of the Republican Congressional leadership, he’s declared that he’ll veto any Schip expansion on “philosophical” grounds.

It must be about philosophy, because it surely isn’t about cost. One of the plans Mr. Bush opposes, the one approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Senate Finance Committee, would cost less over the next five years than we’ll spend in Iraq in the next four months. And it would be fully paid for by an increase in tobacco taxes.

The House plan, which would cover more children, is more expensive, but it offsets Schip costs by reducing subsidies to Medicare Advantage — a privatization scheme that pays insurance companies to provide coverage, and costs taxpayers 12 percent more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.

Strange to say, however, the administration, although determined to prevent any expansion of children’s health care, is also dead set against any cut in Medicare Advantage payments.

So what kind of philosophy says that it’s O.K. to subsidize insurance companies, but not to provide health care to children?

Well, here’s what Mr. Bush said after explaining that emergency rooms provide all the health care you need: “They’re going to increase the number of folks eligible through Schip; some want to lower the age for Medicare. And then all of a sudden, you begin to see a — I wouldn’t call it a plot, just a strategy — to get more people to be a part of a federalization of health care.”

Now, why should Mr. Bush fear that insuring uninsured children would lead to a further “federalization” of health care, even though nothing like that is actually in either the Senate plan or the House plan? It’s not because he thinks the plans wouldn’t work. It’s because he’s afraid that they would. That is, he fears that voters, having seen how the government can help children, would ask why it can’t do the same for adults.

And there you have the core of Mr. Bush’s philosophy. He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.

This sounds like a caricature, but it isn’t. The truth is that this good-is-bad philosophy has always been at the core of Republican opposition to health care reform. Thus back in 1994, William Kristol warned against passage of the Clinton health care plan “in any form,” because “its success would signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the very moment that such policy is being perceived as a failure in other areas.” [my emphasis -ed]

But it has taken the fight over children’s health insurance to bring the perversity of this philosophy fully into view.

There are arguments you can make against programs, like Social Security, that provide a safety net for adults. I can respect those arguments, even though I disagree. But denying basic health care to children whose parents lack the means to pay for it, simply because you’re afraid that success in insuring children might put big government in a good light, is just morally wrong.

And the public understands that. According to a recent Georgetown University poll, 9 in 10 Americans — including 83 percent of self-identified Republicans — support an expansion of the children’s health insurance program.

There is, it seems, more basic decency in the hearts of Americans than is dreamt of in Mr. Bush’s philosophy.

Sunday, July 29

Frank Rich: Petraeus won't save Iraq, but Bush, maybe

The New York Times
July 29, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
Who Really Took Over During That Colonoscopy

THERE was, of course, gallows humor galore when Dick Cheney briefly grabbed the wheel of our listing ship of state during the presidential colonoscopy last weekend. Enjoy it while it lasts. A once-durable staple of 21st-century American humor is in its last throes. We have a new surrogate president now. Sic transit Cheney. Long live David Petraeus!

It was The Washington Post that first quantified General Petraeus’s remarkable ascension. President Bush, who mentioned his new Iraq commander’s name only six times as the surge rolled out in January, has cited him more than 150 times in public utterances since, including 53 in May alone.

As always with this White House’s propaganda offensives, the message in Mr. Bush’s relentless repetitions never varies. General Petraeus is the “main man.” He is the man who gives “candid advice.” Come September, he will be the man who will give the president and the country their orders about the war.

And so another constitutional principle can be added to the long list of those junked by this administration: the quaint notion that our uniformed officers are supposed to report to civilian leadership. In a de facto military coup, the commander in chief is now reporting to the commander in Iraq. We must “wait to see what David has to say,” Mr. Bush says.

Actually, we don’t have to wait. We already know what David will say. He gave it away to The Times of London last month, when he said that September “is a deadline for a report, not a deadline for a change in policy.” In other words: Damn the report (and that irrelevant Congress that will read it) — full speed ahead. There will be no change in policy. As Michael Gordon reported in The New York Times last week, General Petraeus has collaborated on a classified strategy document that will keep American troops in Iraq well into 2009 as we wait for the miracles that will somehow bring that country security and a functioning government.

Though General Petraeus wrote his 1987 Princeton doctoral dissertation on “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” he has an unshakable penchant for seeing light at the end of tunnels. It has been three Julys since he posed for the cover of Newsweek under the headline “Can This Man Save Iraq?” The magazine noted that the general’s pacification of Mosul was “a textbook case of doing counterinsurgency the right way.” Four months later, the police chief installed by General Petraeus defected to the insurgents, along with most of the Sunni members of the police force. Mosul, population 1.7 million, is now an insurgent stronghold, according to the Pentagon’s own June report.

By the time reality ambushed his textbook victory, the general had moved on to the mission of making Iraqi troops stand up so American troops could stand down. “Training is on track and increasing in capacity,” he wrote in The Washington Post in late September 2004, during the endgame of the American presidential election. He extolled the increased prowess of the Iraqi fighting forces and the rebuilding of their infrastructure.

The rest is tragic history. Were the Iraqi forces on the trajectory that General Petraeus asserted in his election-year pep talk, no “surge” would have been needed more than two years later. We would not be learning at this late date, as we did only when Gen. Peter Pace was pressed in a Pentagon briefing this month, that the number of Iraqi battalions operating independently is in fact falling — now standing at a mere six, down from 10 in March.

But even more revealing is what was happening at the time that General Petraeus disseminated his sunny 2004 prognosis. The best account is to be found in “The Occupation of Iraq,” the authoritative chronicle by Ali Allawi published this year by Yale University Press. Mr. Allawi is not some anti-American crank. He was the first civilian defense minister of postwar Iraq and has been an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; his book was praised by none other than the Iraq war cheerleader Fouad Ajami as “magnificent.”

Mr. Allawi writes that the embezzlement of the Iraqi Army’s $1.2 billion arms procurement budget was happening “under the very noses” of the Security Transition Command run by General Petraeus: “The saga of the grand theft of the Ministry of Defense perfectly illustrated the huge gap between the harsh realities on the ground and the Panglossian spin that permeated official pronouncements.” Mr. Allawi contrasts the “lyrical” Petraeus pronouncements in The Post with the harsh realities of the Iraqi forces’ inoperable helicopters, flimsy bulletproof vests and toy helmets. The huge sums that might have helped the Iraqis stand up were instead “handed over to unscrupulous adventurers and former pizza parlor operators.”

Well, anyone can make a mistake. And when General Petraeus cited soccer games as an example of “the astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad last month, he could not have anticipated that car bombs would kill at least 50 Iraqis after the Iraqi team’s poignant victory in the Asian Cup semifinals last week. This general may well be, as many say, the brightest and bravest we have. But that doesn’t account for why he has been invested by the White House and its last-ditch apologists with such singular power over the war.

On “Meet the Press,” Lindsey Graham, one of the Senate’s last gung-ho war defenders in either party, mentioned General Petraeus 10 times in one segment, saying he would “not vote for anything” unless “General Petraeus passes on it.” Desperate hawks on the nation’s op-ed pages not only idolize the commander daily but denounce any critics of his strategy as deserters, defeatists and enemies of the troops.

That’s because the Petraeus phenomenon is not about protecting the troops or American interests but about protecting the president. For all Mr. Bush’s claims of seeking “candid” advice, he wants nothing of the kind. He sent that message before the war, with the shunting aside of Eric Shinseki, the general who dared tell Congress the simple truth that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to secure Iraq. The message was sent again when John Abizaid and George Casey were supplanted after they disagreed with the surge.

Two weeks ago, in his continuing quest for “candid” views, Mr. Bush invited a claque consisting exclusively of conservative pundits to the White House and inadvertently revealed the real motive for the Petraeus surrogate presidency. “The most credible person in the fight at this moment is Gen. David Petraeus,” he said, in National Review’s account.

To be the “most credible” person in this war team means about as much as being the most sober tabloid starlet in the Paris-Lindsay cohort. But never mind. What Mr. Bush meant is that General Petraeus is famous for minding his press coverage, even to the point of congratulating the ABC News anchor Charles Gibson for “kicking some butt” in the Nielsen ratings when Mr. Gibson interviewed him last month. The president, whose 65 percent disapproval rating is now just one point shy of Richard Nixon’s pre-resignation nadir, is counting on General Petraeus to be the un-Shinseki and bestow whatever credibility he has upon White House policies and pronouncements.

He is delivering, heaven knows. Like Mr. Bush, he has taken to comparing the utter stalemate in the Iraqi Parliament to “our own debates at the birth of our nation,” as if the Hamilton-Jefferson disputes were akin to the Shiite-Sunni bloodletting. He is also starting to echo the administration line that Al Qaeda is the principal villain in Iraq, a departure from the more nuanced and realistic picture of the civil-war-torn battlefront he presented to Senate questioners in his confirmation hearings in January.

Mr. Bush has become so reckless in his own denials of reality that he seems to think he can get away with saying anything as long as he has his “main man” to front for him. The president now hammers in the false litany of a “merger” between Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and what he calls “Al Qaeda in Iraq” as if he were following the Madison Avenue script declaring that “Cingular is now the new AT&T.” He doesn’t seem to know that nearly 40 other groups besides Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia have adopted Al Qaeda’s name or pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden worldwide since 2003, by the count of the former C.I.A. counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer. They may follow us here well before any insurgents in Iraq do.

On Tuesday — a week after the National Intelligence Estimate warned of the resurgence of bin Laden’s Qaeda in Pakistan — Mr. Bush gave a speech in which he continued to claim that “Al Qaeda in Iraq” makes Iraq the central front in the war on terror. He mentioned Al Qaeda 95 times but Pakistan and Pervez Musharraf not once. Two days later, his own top intelligence officials refused to endorse his premise when appearing before Congress. They are all too familiar with the threats that are building to a shrill pitch this summer.

Should those threats become a reality while America continues to be bogged down in Iraq, this much is certain: It will all be the fault of President Petraeus.

Saturday, July 28

Our War on Terror

Anna Lindh professor of the practice of global leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

The day after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush declared the strikes by Al Qaeda “more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.” Bush’s “war on terror” was “not a figure of speech,” he said. Rather, it was a defining framework. The war, Bush announced, would begin with Al Qaeda, but would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” The global war on terror, he said, was the “inescapable calling of our generation.”

The phrase and the agenda that grew out of it caught on, and from 9/11 onward, the administration used its pulpit to propagate several new premises. First, with the threat of Islamic radical terrorism, new rules, new tools and new mind-sets had to be devised to meet the novelty of the menace. As Vice President Dick Cheney put it, “old doctrines of security do not apply.” The criminal justice approach of trying terrorists would have to be scrapped, supplanted by a military approach. Second, we were told, the states that sponsored terrorism or offered lodging to terrorists had to be treated the same way as those nonstate actors who carried out the threats. Even more dramatically, America’s friends had to prove their loyalty by taking concrete steps in our global war. As Bush put it, the “duties” of peace-loving people “involve more than sympathy or words. No nation can be neutral.” By requiring governments to step up, we would be able to root out the unreliable and distribute sanctions and favors accordingly.

Third, since international treaties and institutions often constrained Washington’s ability to combat terrorism on its own terms, they should be dipped into and exploited selectively. While it was true that other countries valued those laws and institutions, the gravity of the terrorist threat would ultimately unite nations with shared interests. The urgency of the common cause would override choosiness about the means. Our allies would need us more than we would need them, so we could count on them to rally to our side in a crunch.

And fourth, in Bush’s view, wartime demanded a strong commander in chief, and he would be far more effective prosecuting the war if he could free himself of the meddlesome legislative, judicial and even interagency checks fashionable in peacetime. Surely, Bush’s team argued, the extreme continuing threats to our national security warranted a dramatic expansion of presidential power.

Six years later, most Americans still rightly believe that the United States must confront Islamic terrorism — and must be relentless in preventing terrorist networks from getting weapons of mass destruction. But Bush’s premises have proved flawed, and the war-on-terror frame has obscured more than it has clarified.

As with the war on drugs and the war on crime, the invocation of “war” initially seemed metaphorical (we do not send the 82nd Airborne into downtown Detroit to combat street crime). But in the terrorism context, war proved less a rhetorical frame than a strategic assertion that armed conflict (that is, ground and air invasions of other countries) was the main tool the United States should employ to neutralize terrorism. The United Nations-endorsed war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave way to a period in which the Bush administration used its post-9/11 political capital to smuggle its pre-existing anti-Saddam Hussein agenda to the fore — with disastrous results for American forces, for Iraq and for the wider strategic goal of eliminating Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered perhaps the best standard by which to measure the Bush administration’s performance: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Leaked intelligence reports have shown that the answer is negative. The administration’s tactical and strategic blunders have crippled American military readiness; exposed vulnerabilities in training, equipment and force structure; and accelerated terrorist recruitment. In short, although the United States has not been directly hit since 9/11, we are less safe as a result of the Bush administration’s rhetoric, conduct and strategy.

The war rhetoric has raised expectations that a “complete victory” is not only possible, but in fact necessary (even as Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy preamble reminds us that it will be a “global enterprise of uncertain duration”). That same rhetoric has licensed the executive branch to remove itself from traditional legal frameworks and consolidate power in imperial fashion. And the torture, kidnappings and indefinite detentions carried out at the behest of senior administration officials have blurred the moral distinction between “us” and “them” on which much of Bush’s logic rested.

While our allies still share intelligence with us in order to combat domestic terrorism, our disavowal of international law has made it harder for our friends to contribute military and even financial resources to shore up failing states like Afghanistan, which is portrayed by the opposition in countries like Canada and the Netherlands as one of Bush’s wars. Many of our friends believe that too close an association with American objectives will make them electorally vulnerable and their cities potential targets.

Moreover, by branding the cause a war and calling the enemy terror, the administration has lumped like with unlike foes and elevated hostile elements from the ranks of the criminal (stigmatized in all societies) to the ranks of soldiers of war (a status that carries connotations of sacrifice and courage). Although anybody taking aim at the American superpower would have seemed an underdog, the White House’s approach enhanced the terrorists’ cachet, accentuating the image of self-sacrificing Davids taking up slingshots against a rich, flaccid, hypocritical Goliath. In rejecting the war-on-terror frame recently, Hilary Benn, the British secretary of state for international development, argued: “What these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength.”

But criticizing the calamities of the last six years of American foreign policy has become all too easy. And it does not itself improve our approach to combating terrorist threats that do in fact loom large — larger, in fact, because of Bush’s mistakes. The challenge now is to accept that just because George W. Bush hyped the threat does not mean the threat should be played down. Rather, we must urgently set about reversing the harm done to the nation’s standing and security by simultaneously reasserting the moral difference between the United States and Islamic terrorists and by developing a 21st-century toolbox to minimize actual terrorist threats. Several new books take up this challenge, each addressing a different piece of the national security predicament. Together, they allow one to begin to define a new approach to counterterrorism.

If the United States is to reduce the terrorist threat (diminishing both the probability of attack and the likely scale of harm), the next president must do a far better job of improving the security of civilians abroad, discerning and exploiting fissures among our enemies, persuading our allies to share the burdens of tackling terrorism and strengthening our capacity to withstand attacks at home. None of these steps will be taken in earnest unless we acknowledge the fallacies not simply of Bush’s post-9/11 policies but also of his post-9/11 premises. One question in particular hangs over this discussion: Are the American and international publics so disenchanted with Bush’s effort to curb terrorism the wrong way that they will deprive his successor of the resources he or she needs to change course?

The book to begin with in looking for a revised 21st-century strategy is, unexpectedly, the landmark U.S. ARMY/MARINE CORPS COUNTERINSURGENCY FIELD MANUAL (University of Chicago, paper, $15). It was released as a government document in December 2006, but owing to its enormous popularity (1.5 million downloads in the first month alone), it has now been published by a university press, with a provocative, highly readable new foreword and introduction that testify to the manual’s “paradigm-shattering” content.

When the terrorists struck on 9/11, the United States military was singularly unprepared to deal with them. One reflection of the Pentagon’s mind-set at the time was the fact that the Army counterinsurgency manual had not been updated since 1986 and the Marine Corps guide had not been revised since 1980.

This lack of preparedness showed. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the armed forces did not have the appropriate intelligence, linguistic capabilities, weapons, equipment, force structures, civil affairs know-how or capacity to train security forces in other countries. “It is not unfair to say that in 2003 most Army officers knew more about the U.S. Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency,” Lt. Col. John A. Nagl writes in the foreword to the University of Chicago edition. But while the Bush administration dug in, refusing to admit how ill-suited its premises were to the new century, American military officers revised their old doctrines on the fly.

The leading architect of the manual was David Petraeus, then a lieutenant general, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took responsibility for governing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, immediately thereafter. He is now the overall American commander in Iraq. Petraeus emphasized economic and political development and is said to have asked his soldiers, “What have you done for the people of Iraq today?” He worked with another military man who also saw that his job would have to be more than strictly military — Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded the First Marine Division during the initial invasion and then in 2004 returned to help stabilize Anbar Province. His division motto was “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy — First Do No Harm.” In February 2006, while the new counterinsurgency doctrine was still being drafted, and while international criticism of American military excesses mounted, Petraeus invited journalists, human rights lawyers, academics and practitioners of counterinsurgency to Fort Levenworth to vet a draft, initiating what participants characterized as one of the most open and productive exchanges of ideas they had ever witnessed.

The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.” It suggests that force size be calculated in relation not to the enemy, but to inhabitants (a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents). It emphasizes the necessity of coordination with beefed-up civilian agencies, which are needed to take on reconstruction and development tasks.

The most counterintuitive, as well as the most politically difficult, premise of the manual is that the American military must assume greater risk in order to gather much-needed intelligence and, in the end, achieve greater safety. The emphasis of the 1990s on force protection is overturned by the assertion of several breathtaking paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.” Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (and a close colleague of mine), has contributed an introduction that should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand the huge demands effective counterinsurgency will place on the military and the voting public. “Those who fail to see the manual as radical probably don’t understand it,” she writes, “or at least what it’s up against.”

Sewall can say what the generals who devised the manual cannot. She addresses the concern that the manual is nothing more than a “marketing campaign for an inherently inhumane concept of war,” arguing that if politicians continue to put young American men and women in harm’s way, military leaders have an obligation to enhance effectiveness, which in a globalized era cannot be disentangled from taking better care of civilians. Military actions that cause civilian deaths, she argues, are not simply morally questionable; they are self-defeating.

But Sewall explains that even if the military can overcome the substantial challenges of executing such a counterintuitive doctrine — and here the near-daily reports of large-scale civilian loss of life as a result of United States counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are a reminder of the yawning gap between theory and practice — it will not succeed if it does not get the civilian leadership and support it needs. The military does not have the expertise to perform the range of economic and political tasks associated with nation-building, but in Iraq and Afghanistan, as civilian reconstruction teams went unstaffed, it was forced to pinch-hit. Sewall rightly calls for the “risks and costs of counterinsurgency” to be spread across the American government, but notes this is not an overnight job. “More people play in Army bands than serve in the U.S. foreign service,” she writes.

The manual shows that the demands of counterinsurgency are greater than those the American public has yet been asked to bear. Sewall is skeptical that the public — now feeling burned by Iraq — will muster the will, even in Afghanistan, to “supply greater concentrations of forces, accept higher casualties, fund serious nation-building and stay many long years to conduct counterinsurgency by the book.”

While the United States military’s new counterinsurgency doctrine is based on achieving legitimacy with the local population, Ian Shapiro, a professor of political science at Yale, believes American foreign policy as a whole must vastly increase its legitimacy if it is to defang terrorists in the long term. For this to happen, he writes in his book CONTAINMENT: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror (Princeton University, $24.95), the president’s critics in the Democratic Party must stop freezing like “donkeys in the headlights” in the face of Bush’s war on terror and instead put forth an alternative strategy. “You can’t beat something with nothing,” he insists. Shapiro argues for a return to the cold war rubric of “containment” — a halfway house between “appeasement and the chimerical aspiration to achieve U.S. control over the global security environment.”

While Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy preamble says that in the “new world,” the “only path to peace and security is the path of action,” Shapiro shows how aggressive action has played into the hands of terrorist recruiters. When vital interests are imperiled, war may be necessary, he concedes. But generally the United States will invite fewer threats if, rather than attempting to achieve military hegemony, it employs economic, political and law-enforcement tools. “The idea behind containment,” Shapiro writes, “is to refuse to be bullied, while at the same time declining to become a bully.”

Shapiro is at his most persuasive when he argues against lumping Islamic radical threats together. He points out that at the time of the cold war, George Kennan, the formulator of the containment policy, warned against treating Communism as a monolith. Policy makers, Kennan said, ought to emphasize the differences among and within Communist groups and “contribute to the widening of these rifts without assuming responsibility.” The Bush administration, by contrast, has grouped together a hugely diverse band of violent actors as terrorists, failing to employ divide-and-conquer tactics.

Although it is tempting to feel overwhelmed by the diversity of the threats aligned against the United States, Shapiro says that very diversity presents us with opportunities, since it “creates tensions among our adversaries’ agendas, as well as openings for competition among them.” To pry apart violent Islamic radicals, the United States has to become knowledgeable about internal cleavages and be patient in exploiting them. Arguably, this is what American forces in Iraq are doing belatedly — and perilously — as they undertake the high-risk approach of turning Sunni ex-Baathists against Qaeda forces.

Shapiro argues, much as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual does, that the United States must learn to get inside the minds of its enemies, to try to see the world as they do. Take Iran, for example. A Bush administration that had stepped into Iran’s shoes might have toned down its inflammatory rhetoric, having seen that the American occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq would be, in Shapiro’s words, “as if the Soviet Union had occupied Canada and Mexico at the height of the cold war, and had its fleet anchored off Cuba.” United States intelligence capacities, he says, must be revamped so that policy makers in Washington can guard against a “propensity to confuse leaders the United States might regard as desirable with leaders who actually enjoy legitimacy on the ground.”

Had President Bush adopted Shapiro’s approach on Sept. 12, 2001, it is quite likely that he would have had more success in marginalizing adversaries. Security Council powerhouses like Russia and China would still have thrown their weight around in ways that the administration would have found problematic, but Washington would have been better able to coerce or persuade the fence sitters. Today, however, containment is more challenging than it was before 9/11, or in the days of the cold war.

In addition, for containment to work, Washington needs to be able to deliver credible threats. The irony of Bush’s flawed approach is that it has exposed the limits of American enforcement tools, stretching military and financial resources beyond recognition. This has a doubly negative effect: it emboldens those who need to be contained, and it deters those we once might have counted on for help in doing the containing.

Shapiro seems consoled by his belief that the threat we now face is not new — that the potential accessibility of weapons of mass destruction has not changed anything fundamental in the global order from the cold war years. Nuclear weapons, he writes, are too hard to assemble, and biological agents too hard to store; chemical weapons, though a genuine danger, are not a new one. “Nothing in the nature of the materials themselves,” he says, “presents a qualitatively new threat.” But here, he seems far too eager to minimize the threat, perhaps fearing that by conceding any aspect of the Bush doctrine, he somehow legitimizes the whole flawed approach. In fact, after six years of dishonesty and alarmism, it seems especially important — if challenging — to retain a capacity for grave, calibrated concern about the proliferation of nuclear aspirant states and their proud ties to terrorist networks.

How real is the difference between our foes and us? One of the most incisive challenges to current debates comes from Talal Asad, whose ON SUICIDE BOMBING (Columbia University, $19.95) argues that the distinction between what Bush calls “us” and “them” exists in the heads of Western leaders, publics and intellectuals, but not in reality. Asad, a professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, takes aim less at the Bush administration than at the rest of us, and at what he sees as our unspoken complicity in “some kinds of cruelty as opposed to others.” He hopes, he writes, to “disturb the reader sufficiently” by showing the hypocrisy of rules that permit murderous conduct by states but deny it to nonstate actors. And he is angered by scholars, theorists and journalists who don’t speak Arabic and have never set foot in the Middle East, yet sound off about why suicide bombers do what they do. He is understandably aghast that the American public has expressed so little shock over the bloodshed inflicted in its name. And by the end of the book, his rage has overtaken him. The Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East have left him so disgusted that he declares simply, “It seems to me that there is no moral difference between the horror inflicted by state armies (especially if those armies belong to powerful states that are unaccountable to international law) and the horror inflicted by insurgents.”

It is hard to answer Asad’s argument without drifting into the distinctions he attempts to demolish. For instance, he cites the political philosopher Michael Walzer’s definition of the “peculiar evil of terrorism,” which, according to Walzer, is “not only the killing of innocent people but also the intrusion of fear into everyday life, the violation of private purposes, the insecurity of public spaces, the endless coerciveness of precaution.” Asad then asks why the United States’ war in Iraq and the Israeli cluster bombs in Lebanon do not earn the same condemnation as bombs wielded by terrorists. But if you continue to believe (as I do) that there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective, you will indeed find “On Suicide Bombing” disturbing, if not always in the way he intends.

Nonetheless, Asad’s book is valuable because the legal distinctions he is challenging are especially vulnerable now. They are vulnerable sociologically, in that millions — if not billions — of people around the world do not see the difference between a suicide bomber’s attack on a pizzeria and an American attack on what turns out to be a wedding party. Asad’s challenge is one politicians must answer if they stand any chance of recapturing hearts and minds. At the same time, when a war is fought on false grounds, like that in Iraq, the notion of “collateral damage” breaks down, since one must ask what civilian harm could possibly be justified in a war that was itself unnecessary.

Revamping our approach to terrorism requires changes that extend far beyond the battlefields of Iraq all the way back to the American homefront. Remarkably, despite six years of warnings about “imminent threats” and inevitable mushroom clouds, the Bush administration has not led the country into taking precautions that would reduce mass casualties in the event of a major terrorist strike. The White House’s emphasis on war has come at the expense of homefront preparedness. For Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, we are a surprisingly “brittle nation.”

By defining American security objectives in military terms, the Bush administration has failed to set achievable goals that could vastly decrease the human and financial damage from a large-scale attack at home. While the United States military has done its best to adjust to the inadequacies recent conflicts have exposed, almost no meaningful midcourse corrections have been made on the homefront, Flynn argues in THE EDGE OF DISASTER: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation (Random House, $25.95) — not in educating the public, training emergency responders, fortifying “soft targets,” securing hazardous materials or strengthening critical infrastructure.

Regardless of how catastrophic or imminent one believes the threats are, and regardless of whether American legitimacy can be retrieved abroad, the government has an obligation to protect its citizens and its infrastructure from future attack. Flynn reminds us of the importance of “resiliency” — the ability to recover from a disaster. “A society that can match its strength to deliver a punch with the means to take one,” he writes, “makes an unattractive target.”

Flynn observes that the twin catastrophes of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina testify to major gaps in our preparedness and competence. He calls for open debates about our vulnerabilities. Exposing our weaknesses will not empower our foes, he insists, but will help build broad support at home for a reallocation of resources. “What makes a disaster a true catastrophe,” Flynn says, “has more to do with our own acts of omission or commission than with the forces that lie beyond our control.” Publicity and free discussion are necessary to produce political action.

None of the recommendations outlined in any of these books would be easy to achieve under the best of circumstances. But what is striking is how few have even been pursued. The Bush administration’s unwillingness to admit failure causes it to cling to a flawed approach rather than revisit its premises, adopt a new strategy or experiment with new tactics.

The president, apparently, remains determined to treat the American people as if they have no role to play in what will, in fact, be a “global struggle of uncertain duration.” In a January interview with Jim Lehrer, Bush was asked why he hadn’t called for more Americans to “sacrifice something.” He said: “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.”

The effect of such an attitude is not simply that the American military will continue to bear the lion’s share of the national security burden — a burden, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual practically screams out, the military cannot meet alone. It is that the American public, with little faith in the credibility of the government’s claims, may deny even cleareyed leaders the resources they need to meet the complex demands of neutralizing modern threats.h

Will the United States military have to assume greater risks to achieve greater safety in the end?

Samantha Power is the Anna Lindh professor of the practice of global leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Galbraith: The Iraq war is lost, retreat to hold Kurdistan

Iraq: The Way to Go
By Peter W. Galbraith


On May 30, the Coalition held a ceremony in the Kurdistan town of Erbil to mark its handover of security in Iraq's three Kurdish provinces from the Coalition to the Iraqi government. General Benjamin Mixon, the US commander for northern Iraq, praised the Iraqi government for overseeing all aspects of the handover. And he drew attention to the "benchmark" now achieved: with the handover, he said, Iraqis now controlled security in seven of Iraq's eighteen provinces.

In fact, nothing was handed over. The only Coalition force in Kurdistan is the peshmerga, a disciplined army that fought alongside the Americans in the 2003 campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and is loyal to the Kurdistan government in Erbil. The peshmerga provided security in the three Kurdish provinces before the handover and after. The Iraqi army has not been on Kurdistan's territory since 1996 and is effectively prohibited from being there. Nor did the Iraqi flag fly at the ceremony. It is banned in Kurdistan.

Although the Erbil handover was a sham that Prince Potemkin might have admired, it was not easily arranged. The Bush administration had wanted the handover to take place before the US congressional elections in November. But it also wanted an Iraqi flag flown at the ceremony and some acknowledgement that Iraq, not Kurdistan, was in charge. The Kurds were prepared to include a reference to Iraq in the ceremony, but they were adamant that there be no Iraqi flags. It took months to work out a compromise ceremony with no flags at all. Thus the ceremony was followed by a military parade without a single flag—an event so unusual that one observer thought it might merit mention in Ripley's Believe it or Not.
NYR Subscriptions-Save $41!

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, attended the ceremony alongside Kurdistan's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, but the Iraqi government had no part in supervising the nonexistent handover. While General Mixon, a highly regarded strategist with excellent ties to the Kurds, had no choice but to make the remarks he did, Mowaffak al-Rubaie acknowledged Kurdistan's distinct nature and the right of the Kurds—approximately six million people, or some 20 percent of Iraq's population—to chart their own course.

On July 12, the White House released a congressionally mandated report on progress in Iraq. As with the sham handover, the report reflected the administration's desperate search for indicators of progress since it began its "surge" by sending five additional combat brigades to the country in February 2007. In recent months the Bush administration and its advocates have been promoting the success of the surge in reducing sectarian killing in Baghdad and achieving a turnaround in Anbar province, where former Sunni insurgents are signing up with local militias to fight al-Qaeda.

Although reliable statistics about Iraq are notoriously hard to come by, it does appear that the overall civilian death toll in Baghdad has declined from its pre-surge peak, although it is still at the extremely high levels of the summer of 2006. Moreover, the number of unidentified bodies—usually the victims of Shiite death squads—has risen in May and June to pre-surge levels. How much of the modest decline in civilian deaths in Baghdad is attributable to the surge is not knowable, nor is there any way to know if it will last.

The developments in Anbar are more significant. Tribesmen who had been attacking US troops in support of the insurgency are now taking US weapons to fight al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. Unfortunately, the Sunni fundamentalists are not the only enemy of these new US-sponsored militias. The Sunni tribes also regard Iraq's Shiite-led government as an enemy, and the US appears now to be in the business of arming both the Sunni and Shiite factions in what has long since become a civil war.

Against the backdrop of modest progress, much has not changed, or has gotten worse. The Baghdad Green Zone is subject to increasingly accurate mortar attacks and is deemed at greater risk of penetration by suicide bombers. Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army was a major target of Bush's surge strategy, remains one of Iraq's most powerful political figures. The military activity against his forces seems only to have enhanced his standing with the public.

Even if the surge has had some modest military success, it has failed to accomplish its political objectives. The idea behind Bush's new strategy was to increase temporarily the number of US troops in Baghdad and Anbar. The aim was to provide a breathing space so that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government might enact a program of national reconciliation that would accommodate enough Sunnis to isolate the insurgents. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces, improved by their close relations with US troops and additional training, would take over security.

The core of the national reconciliation program is a series of legislative and political steps that the government should take to address the concerns of Iraq's Sunnis, who feel left out of the country they dominated until 2003. These steps include an oil revenue–sharing law (to ensure that the oil-poor Sunni regions get their share of revenue); holding provincial elections (the Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 provincial and parliamentary elections leaving them underrepresented even in Sunni-majority provinces); revising Iraq's constitution (the Sunnis want a more centralized state); revising the ban on public sector employment of former Baathists (Sunnis dominated the upper ranks of the Baath Party and of the Saddam-era public service), and a fair distribution of reconstruction funds. Both the administration and Congress have placed great emphasis on the obligation of the Iraqi government to achieve these so-called benchmarks. Congress has, by law, linked US strategy on Iraq and financial support of the Iraqi government to progress on these benchmarks and other steps.

Iraq's government has not met one of the benchmarks, and, with the exception of the revenue-sharing law, most are unlikely to happen. But even if they were all enacted, it would not help. Provincial elections will make Iraq less governable while the process of constitutional revision could break the country apart.

Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, likes to talk of the disparity between the Iraqi clock and the US clock, suggesting that Iraqis believe they have more time to reach agreement than the American political calendar will tolerate. Crocker is the State Department's foremost Iraq hand but, more generally, American impatience often reflects ignorance. For example, both Congress and the administration have expressed frustration that the ban on public service by ex-Baathists has not been relaxed, since this appears to be a straightforward change, easily accomplished and already promised by Iraq's leaders.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, previously known as SCIRI), which is Iraq's leading Shiite party and a critical component of Prime Minister al-Maliki's coalition. He is the sole survivor of eight brothers. During Saddam's rule Baathists executed six of them. On August 29, 2003, a suicide bomber, possibly linked to the Baathists, blew up his last surviving brother, and predecessor as SCIRI leader, at the shrine of Ali in Najaf. Moqtada al-Sadr, Hakim's main rival, comes from Iraq's other prominent Shiite religious family. Saddam's Baath regime murdered his father and two brothers in 1999. Earlier, in April 1980, the regime had arrested Moqtada's father-in-law and the father-in-law's sister—the Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and Bint al-Huda. While the ayatollah watched, the Baath security men raped and killed his sister. They then set fire to the ayatollah's beard before driving nails into his head. De-Baathification is an intensely personal issue for Iraq's two most powerful Shiite political leaders, as it is to hundreds of thousands of their followers who suffered similar atrocities.

Iraq's Shiite leaders are reluctant to spend reconstruction money in Sunni areas because they believe, not without reason, that such funds support the Sunni side in the civil war. In a speech in late June on the Senate floor Indiana Republican Richard Lugar reported that Iraq's Shiite-led government has gone "out of its way to bottle up money budgeted for Sunni provinces" and that the "strident intervention" of the US embassy was required in order to get food rations delivered to Sunni towns.

Iraq's mainstream Shiite leaders resist holding new provincial elections because they know what such elections are likely to bring. Because the Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 elections, they do not control the northern governorate, or province, of Nineveh, in which there is a Sunni majority, and they are not represented in governorates with mixed populations, such as Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. New elections would, it is argued, give Sunnis a greater voice in the places where they live, and the Shiites say they do not have a problem with this, although just how they would treat the militant Sunnis who would be elected is far from clear. The Kurds reluctantly accept new elections in the Sunni governorates even though it means they will lose control of Nineveh and have a much-reduced presence in Diyala.

The American benchmark of holding provincial elections would also require new elections in southern Iraq and Baghdad. If they were held, al-Hakim's Shiite party, the SIIC, which now controls seven of the nine southern governorates, would certainly lose ground to Moqtada al-Sadr. His main base is in Baghdad and new elections would almost certainly leave his followers in control of Baghdad Governorate, with one quarter of Iraq's population. Iraq's decentralized constitution gives the governorates enormous powers and significant shares of the national budget, if they choose to exercise these powers. New local elections are not required until 2009 and it is hard to see how early elections strengthening al-Sadr, who is hostile to the US and appears to have close ties to Iran, serve American interests. But this is precisely what the Bush administration is pushing for and Congress seems to want.

Constitutional revision is the most significant benchmark and it could break Iraq apart. Iraq's constitution, approved by 79 percent of voters in an October 2005 referendum, is the product of a Kurdish–Shiite deal: the Kurds supported the establishment of a Shiite-led government in exchange for Shiite support for a confederal arrangement in which Kurdistan and other regions like the one SIIC hopes to set up in the south, are virtually independent.

Since there is no common ground among the Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis on any significant constitutional changes in favor of the Sunnis, such changes must come at the expense of the Kurds or Shiites. Since voters in these communities have a veto on any constitutional amendments, they are certain to fail in a referendum. A revised constitution has no chance of being enacted but its failure will exacerbate tensions among Iraq's three groups.

Constitutionally, Iraq's central government has almost no power, and the Bush administration is partially to blame for this. When the constitution was being drafted in 2005, the United Nations came up with a series of proposals that would have made for more workable sharing of power between regions and the central government. The US embassy stopped the UN from presenting these proposals because it hoped for a final document as centralized as (and textually close to) the interim constitution written by the Americans. When the constitution finally emerged in its present form, then US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad brokered a deal with several Sunni leaders whereby, in exchange for Sunni support for ratification, there would be a fast-track process to revise the constitution in the months following ratification to meet Sunni concerns. Like the Bush administration, the Sunnis want a more centralized state. While the US insists that constitutional revision is a moral obligation, the Sunnis actually never lived up to their end of the bargain. Almost unanimously, they voted against ratification of the current constitution.

With input from the United Nations (belatedly brought back into the process last year), the Iraqi Parliament's mainly Arab Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) is considering amendments that would strip Kurdistan of many of its powers, including its right to cancel federal laws, to decide on taxes applicable in its own territory, and to control its own oil and water. The Sunni Arabs would also like Iraq declared an Arab state, a measure the non-Arab Kurds consider racist and exclusionary.

Thanks to Khalilzad's expedite procedures, constitutional revision may be the final wedge between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. If approved by the CRC, the constitutional amendments will be subject to a vote in the parliament as a single package and then to a nationwide referendum. Kurdistan's voters are certain to reject the proposed package (or any package affecting Kurdistan's powers), and this could push tense Sunni–Kurdish relations into open conflict. Kurdish NGOs, who ran a 2005 independence referendum, are poised to make a "NO" campaign on constitutional revision a "No to Iraq" vote. In its July 12 report to Congress, the White House graded the CRC's work as "satisfactory," an evaluation that was either grossly dishonest or, more likely, out of touch with Iraqi reality.

For the most part, Iraq's leaders are not personally stubborn or uncooperative. They find it impossible to reach agreement on the benchmarks because their constituents don't agree on any common vision for Iraq. The Shiites voted twice in 2005 for parties that seek to define Iraq as a Shiite state. By their boycotts and votes the Sunni Arabs have almost unanimously rejected the Shiite vision of Iraq's future, including the new constitution. The Kurds' envisage an Iraq that does not include them. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, 99 percent of them voted for Kurdish nationalist parties, and in the January 2005 referendum, 98 percent voted for an independent Kurdistan.

But even if Iraq's politicians could agree to the benchmarks, this wouldn't end the insurgency or the civil war. Sunni insurgents object to Iraq being run by Shiite religious parties, which they see as installed by the Americans, loyal to Iran, and wanting to define Iraq in a way that excludes the Sunnis. Sunni fundamentalists consider the Shiites apostates who deserve death, not power. The Shiites believe that their democratic majority and their historical suffering under the Baathist dictatorship entitle them to rule. They are not inclined to compromise with Sunnis, whom they see as their longstanding oppressors, especially when they believe most Iraqi Sunnis are sympathetic to the suicide bombers that have killed thousands of ordinary Shiites. The differences are fundamental and cannot be papered over by sharing oil revenues, reemploying ex-Baathists, or revising the constitution. The war is not about those things.


The Iraq war is lost. Of course, neither the President nor the war's intellectual architects are prepared to admit this. Nonetheless, the specter of defeat shapes their thinking in telling ways.

The case for the war is no longer defined by the benefits of winning—a stable Iraq, democracy on the march in the Middle East, the collapse of the evil Iranian and Syrian regimes—but by the consequences of defeat. As President Bush put it, "The consequences of failure in Iraq would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America."

Tellingly, the Iraq war's intellectual boosters, while insisting the surge is working, are moving to assign blame for defeat. And they have already picked their target: the American people. In The Weekly Standard, Tom Donnelly, a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote, "Those who believe the war is already lost—call it the Clinton-Lugar axis—are mounting a surge of their own. Ground won in Iraq becomes ground lost at home." Lugar provoked Donnelly's anger by noting that the American people had lost confidence in Bush's Iraq strategy as demonstrated by the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress. (This "blame the American people" approach has, through repetition, almost become the accepted explanation for the outcome in Vietnam, attributing defeat to a loss of public support and not to fifteen years of military failure.)

Indeed, Vietnam is the image many Americans have of defeat in Iraq. Al-Qaeda would overrun the Green Zone and the last Americans would evacuate from the rooftop of the still unfinished largest embassy in the world. President Bush feeds on this imagery. In his May 5, 2007, radio address to the nation, he explained:

If radicals and terrorists emerge from this battle with control of Iraq, they would have control of a nation with massive oil reserves, which they could use to fund their dangerous ambitions and spread their influence. The al Qaeda terrorists who behead captives or order suicide bombings would not be satisfied to see America defeated and gone from Iraq. They would be emboldened by their victory, protected by their new sanctuary, eager to impose their hateful vision on surrounding countries, and eager to harm Americans.

But there will be no Saigon moment in Iraq. Iraq's Shiite-led government is in no danger of losing the civil war to al-Qaeda, or a more inclusive Sunni front. Iraq's Shiites are three times as numerous as Iraq's Sunni Arabs; they dominate Iraq's military and police and have a powerful ally in neighboring Iran. The Arab states that might support the Sunnis are small, far away (vast deserts separate the inhabited parts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia from the main Iraqi population centers), and can only provide money, something the insurgency has in great amounts already.

Iraq after an American defeat will look very much like Iraq today—a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war being fought within its Arab part. Defeat is defined by America's failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place, along with the increase of Iranian power in the region.

Iraq's Kurdish leaders and Iraq's dwindling band of secular Arab democrats fear that a complete US withdrawal will leave all of Iraq under Iranian influence. Senator Hillary Clinton, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke are among the prominent Democrats who have called for the US to protect Kurdistan militarily should there be a withdrawal from Iraq. The argument for so doing is straightforward: it secures the one part of Iraq that has emerged as stable, democratic, and pro-Western; it discharges a moral debt to our Kurdish allies; it deters both Turkish intervention and a potentially destabilizing Turkish– Kurdish war; it provides US forces a secure base that can be used to strike at al-Qaeda in adjacent Sunni territories; and it limits Iran's gains.

In laying out his dark vision of an American failure, President Bush never discusses Iran's domination of Iraq even though this is a far more likely consequence of American defeat than an al-Qaeda victory. Bush's reticence is understandable since it was his miscalculations and incompetent management of the postwar occupation that gave Iran its opportunity. While opposing talks with Iran, the neoconservatives also prefer not to discuss its current powerful influence over Iraq's central government and southern region, persisting in the fantasy—notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary—that Iran is deeply unpopular among Iraq's Shiites and clerics. (At the same time, US officials accuse Iran of supplying Iraqi Shiite militias with particularly lethal roadside bombs.)

On June 25, without giving the press or White House any advance notice, Richard Lugar, the most respected Republican voice on foreign affairs in Congress, spoke in the Senate about "connecting our Iraq strategy to our vital interests." On the face of it, the idea is as sensible and conservative as the senator delivering the speech. He observed that political fragmentation in Iraq, the stress suffered by the US military, and growing antiwar sentiment at home "make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame." Lugar noted that agreements reached with Iraqi leaders are most often not implemented, partly, as Lugar observed, because the leaders do not control their followers but also because Iraqi leaders have also discovered that telling the Bush administration what it wants to hear is a fully acceptable substitute for action.

Lugar is blunt in his description of the situation in Iraq:

Few Iraqis have demonstrated that they want to be Iraqis.... In this context, the possibility that the United States can set meaningful benchmarks that would provide an indication of impending success or failure is remote. Perhaps some benchmarks or agreements will be initially achieved, but most can be undermined or reversed by a contrary edict of the Iraqi government, a decision by a faction to ignore agreements, or the next terrorist attack or wave of sectarian killings. American manpower cannot keep the lid on indefinitely. The anticipation that our training operations could produce an effective Iraqi army loyal to a cohesive central government is still just a hopeful plan for the future.

Lugar concluded his speech by urging that we "refocus our policy in Iraq on realistic assessments of what can be achieved, and on a sober review of our vital interests in the Middle East." After four years of a war driven more by wishful thinking than strategy, this is hardly a radical idea, but it has produced a barrage of covert criticism of Lugar from the administration and overt attack from the neoconservatives.

Lugar's focus on the achievable runs against main currents of opinion in a nation increasingly polarized between the growing number who want to withdraw from Iraq and the die-hard defenders of a failure. We need to recognize, as Lugar implicitly does, that Iraq no longer exists as a unified country. In the parts where we can accomplish nothing, we should withdraw. But there are still three missions that may be achievable—disrupting al-Qaeda, preserving Kurdistan's democracy, and limiting Iran's increasing domination. These can all be served by a modest US presence in Kurdistan. We need an Iraq policy with sufficient nuance to protect American interests.Unfortunately, we probably won't get it.

—July 12, 2007

Thursday, July 26


By Cass Sunstein

According to conventional wisdom, the Supreme Court is equally divided between a conservative wing and a liberal one, with Justice Anthony Kennedy acting as the swing voter. But there is something extremely strange about this view of the current situation. By the standards of the recent past, the liberal wing isn't liberal at all.

According to conventional wisdom, the Court has long been evenly balanced between left and right, and it has finally shifted a bit to the right under Chief Justice John Roberts. But there is something strange about this view as well. The Court shifted quite dramatically to the right between 1972 and 2000, indeed between 1980 and 2000, and yet people continued to speak of an alleged "balance" even as the dramatic shift was underway.

To see how much has happened, and how little we have understood it, we need to try a little science fiction. Imagine, if you will, a Supreme Court that, in the next quarter-century, has been shifted radically to the left.

Imagine that by 2030, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have both resigned, and their successors are much more liberal than anyone serving now on the Court--far to the left of the Court's supposed liberal wing. The new justices believe that the death penalty is always unconstitutional. They argue that the Constitution creates a right to education and very possibly to welfare and housing as well. They think that affirmative action programs are fine, even if they operate as rigid quota systems. They are not merely committed to a right to choose abortion; they say that the Constitution requires government to fund abortions for poor women, even when those abortions are not medically necessary.

Imagine too that Kennedy has been succeeded by someone who is far to his left--by someone who essentially agrees with the two very liberal justices described above.

Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer continue to serve on this imaginary court, and Justice John Paul Stevens has been replaced with someone who thinks very much as he did. But all four justices, taken in 2007 to be the court's "liberal wing," are characterized in 2030 as moderates or even as conservatives.

Samuel Alito has disappointed some and pleased others, by proving to be somewhere between a conservative and a centrist. Chief Justice John Roberts remains on the court, but he is now its only reliably conservative member. Joined sometimes but not always by Alito, he is popularly described as the Lone Ranger.

Does this Supreme Court of 2030 seem utterly fantastic and unimaginable--a conservative's worst nightmare, a liberal's wildest dream? If so, think again. The court just described is no fantasy. In essence, it is the Supreme Court of 1980. That court consisted of Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, Byron White, Stevens, Potter Stewart, and William Rehnquist (once known as the Lone Ranger).

Astonishing but true: The court of 1980, so far to the left of the court of 2007, was itself described as a conservative court. After all, it included five Republican appointees (Powell, Burger, Rehnquist, Stevens and Stewart) who generally rejected the liberal rulings of their predecessors on the Warren Court.

Justices Souter and Stevens, both Republican appointees, are often described as "liberals" on the current Court — even though their general views are close to those of two highly respected centrists on the Burger Court, Justices Powell and, well, Stevens. Justice Kennedy is standardly described as the "moderate" on the Court--even though his views on key issues are far more conservative than those of Powell, Stewart, and White, the distinguished moderates on the Burger Court.

In short, the conservative refashioning of the Court has radically changed the terms of legal and political discourse. On the Supreme Court, what was once centrist is now left-wing. What was once conservative is now centrist. What was once on the extreme right--so extreme that it was not represented on the Court at all--is now merely conservative (Scalia and Thomas). What was once on the left no longer exists (Brennan and Marshall, often joined by Blackmun).

By drawing attention to these changes, I do not mean to suggest agreement with the liberals of the Court's past. In my view, the Court does best if it proceeds incrementally and with respect for the elected branches of government. But public discussion has been badly distorted by a failure to see exactly how much has happened in the last decades. Indeed, this particular revolution has been so unusual, and so stunningly successful, precisely because so few people have even noticed it.

Wednesday, July 25

Bush Falsehoods about Al-Qaeda in Iraq

Prof Juan Cole, reposted from Informed Coment

Bush gave a speech on Tuesday in which he made a large number inaccurate statements. Likely the recent Pentagon and White House practice of referring to all "insurgents" in Iraq as "al-Qaeda" was intended to lead up to this speech.

Bush maintained in his speech that the members of "al-Qaeda in Iraq" have pledged fealty (bay'at) to Usama Bin Laden. There is no evidence for this allegation. The foreign fighters who make up "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" are successors to previously-existing radical Muslim groups such as Ansar al-Islam and Monotheism and Holy War, both of which had distinct identities from al-Qaeda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi even at one point forbade members of Monotheism and Holy War to give money to al-Qaeda. It is unlikely that they have all swung around behind Bin Laden, though some among the Saudi volunteers may have. As far back as 2005, Ansar al-Sunnah clearly feared the influence of Bin Laden and asked foreign volunteers to stop coming.

Bush made al-Qaeda in Iraq the central group in the insurgency. In fact, Pentagon statistics indicate that the US holds in captivity 19,000 Iraqis suspected of insurgent activities, whereas it has only 135 foreign fighters currently in custody. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" is mostly foreign fighters. Obviously, it just is not that important, though it gets off some bombs, which is not to be taken lightly.

Bush says that tribal sheikhs in al-Anbar province have now taken on the foreign jihadis. But if that is so, why should we worry about them taking over Iraq? They cannot and the Iraqis would not let them (even the Sunni Iraqis would not let them, much less the Shiites or Kurds!) 1200 foreign volunteers cannot take over a country, and the US does not need 160,000 troops in Iraq to fight this small group. In fact, Bush risks raising the question of why 160,000 US troops have not made better progress against the small cohort of foreign fighters.

Bush alleged that the "al-Qaeda" fighters in Iraq are professional terrorists. He said that if he had not invaded Iraq, they would even so have been busy engaging in violence.

An analysis of persons named as fighters on internet sites 18 months ago vigorously contests Bush's allegation:
'out of 429 fighters only 22 (5.1%) have had fighting experience in other regions, demonstrating that the foreign fighters in Iraq do indeed constitute the third generation of Salafi-jihadists. . . It is worth noting that 17 out of 31 fighters [on which there was education data] quit their education to join the fight against the American occupation. This is also evident in the high percentage of BA degree holders (19.4%), which is different from what typically occurs in Salafi-jihadist movements, whose ideologues are normally the ones with high levels of education while the fighters are mostly young men who have not completed their education. . . Another interesting fact is that 22 of those fighters are married, and among those whose career status is known, 8 out of 18 (44%) work in the private sector, with some even being investors. This lends further credence to the notion that the occupation of Iraq, and all the excesses that surrounds it, is generating new developments in erstwhile socio-economically stable Salafi-jihadi networks.'

The small band of some 1200 foreign fighters in Iraq are not for the most part career terrorists as far as anyone can tell. They are too young, at an average of 27, for that description. They are a new generation. They were college students and financiers who became angry about Bush's military occupation of a Muslim Arab country. In the absence of that invasion, they would still be at ordinary ho-hum jobs.

Bush says that his occupation of Iraq cannot explain the violent tactics of the "al-Qaeda insurgents" there. He says that the US was not in Iraq during the Embassy bombings of 1998, the attack on the US Cole in 2000, or September 11.

This talking point is pure propaganda on many fronts. First of all, Bush has not established that the foreign jihadis in Iraq are "al-Qaeda" in any significant sense. So his attempt to sneak in a continuity here is not legitimate. Second, while it is true that nothing justifies the violence of al-Qaeda (especially against a ship named the Cole!), it is not true that it lacks all context or motive or that US actions in Iraq were irrelevant to it. Muslim activists believed that US sanctions on Iraq were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990s, and the US continued from time to time to bomb the country.

I wrote this earlier:

' That continental rift is the reason for the great interest in Republican Presidential Candidate Ron Paul's argument with his rival Rudi Guiliani. Paul said in the recent debate that the US was attacked on 9/11 in part because of its prior involvement in Iraq.

Rudi Giuliani interrupted him, claimed he had never heard of that, and misrepresented Paul as justifying the attack.

But Paul was factually correct. In his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the United States, Bin Laden had said " . . .the civil and the military infrastructures of Iraq were savagely destroyed showing the depth of the Zionist-Crusaders' hatred to the Muslims and their children . . ."

Paul was saying that terror has a context, that the post-Gulf War US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s that allegedly caused the deaths of 500,000 children helped produce hatred for this country in the Middle East.

In his reply to Giuliani's demand for a retraction, Paul said,

' “I believe the CIA is correct when it warns us about blowback. We overthrew the Iranian government in 1953 and their taking the hostages was the reaction. This dynamic persists and we ignore it at our risk. They’re not attacking us because we’re rich and free, they’re attacking us because we’re over there.” '

The final thing to say is that in 2001 you could argue that Bush was not responsible for al-Qaeda, though he did not take it seriously for the first 8 months (and his father had something to do while Vice President in the 1980s with helping create it to fight the Soviets). But in 2007, if al-Qaeda is still there, if Bin Laden is still there to accept oaths of fealty, if it forms a major threat to the US-- as Bush alleges-- then it is his fault for not doing a better job against it in the past 6 years.

Bush's falsehoods are unlikely to get much play or make any converts. The American public already knows the things I am saying (a big difference from 2003!) A few professional pundits who get rich off pandering to warmongers will trumpet the speech.

What 8 years of Republican Rule have done to the Internet Revolution

The New York Times
July 23, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
The French Connections

There was a time when everyone thought that the Europeans and the Japanese were better at business than we were. In the early 1990s airport bookstores were full of volumes with samurai warriors on their covers, promising to teach you the secrets of Japanese business success. Lester Thurow’s 1992 book, “Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe and America,” which spent more than six months on the Times best-seller list, predicted that Europe would win.

Then it all changed, and American despondency turned into triumphalism. Partly this was because the Clinton boom contrasted so sharply with Europe’s slow growth and Japan’s decade-long slump. Above all, however, our new confidence reflected the rise of the Internet. Jacques Chirac complained that the Internet was an “Anglo-Saxon network,” and he had a point — France, like most of Europe except Scandinavia, lagged far behind the U.S. when it came to getting online.

What most Americans probably don’t know is that over the last few years the situation has totally reversed. As the Internet has evolved — in particular, as dial-up has given way to broadband connections using DSL, cable and other high-speed links — it’s the United States that has fallen behind.

The numbers are startling. As recently as 2001, the percentage of the population with high-speed access in Japan and Germany was only half that in the United States. In France it was less than a quarter. By the end of 2006, however, all three countries had more broadband subscribers per 100 people than we did.

Even more striking is the fact that our “high speed” connections are painfully slow by other countries’ standards. According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, French broadband connections are, on average, more than three times as fast as ours. Japanese connections are a dozen times faster. Oh, and access is much cheaper in both countries than it is here.

As a result, we’re lagging in new applications of the Internet that depend on high speed. France leads the world in the number of subscribers to Internet TV; the United States isn’t even in the top 10.

What happened to America’s Internet lead? Bad policy. Specifically, the United States made the same mistake in Internet policy that California made in energy policy: it forgot — or was persuaded by special interests to ignore — the reality that sometimes you can’t have effective market competition without effective regulation.

You see, the world may look flat once you’re in cyberspace — but to get there you need to go through a narrow passageway, down your phone line or down your TV cable. And if the companies controlling these passageways can behave like the robber barons of yore, levying whatever tolls they like on those who pass by, commerce suffers.

America’s Internet flourished in the dial-up era because federal regulators didn’t let that happen — they forced local phone companies to act as common carriers, allowing competing service providers to use their lines. Clinton administration officials, including Al Gore and Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, tried to ensure that this open competition would continue — but the telecommunications giants sabotaged their efforts, while The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page ridiculed them as people with the minds of French bureaucrats.

And when the Bush administration put Michael Powell in charge of the F.C.C., the digital robber barons were basically set free to do whatever they liked. As a result, there’s little competition in U.S. broadband — if you’re lucky, you have a choice between the services offered by the local cable monopoly and the local phone monopoly. The price is high and the service is poor, but there’s nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, as a recent article in Business Week explains, the real French bureaucrats used judicious regulation to promote competition. As a result, French consumers get to choose from a variety of service providers who offer reasonably priced Internet access that’s much faster than anything I can get, and comes with free voice calls, TV and Wi-Fi.

It’s too early to say how much harm the broadband lag will do to the U.S. economy as a whole. But it’s interesting to learn that health care isn’t the only area in which the French, who can take a pragmatic approach because they aren’t prisoners of free-market ideology, simply do things better.

Paul Dorell, Highland Park, Ill.: I find it ironic that U.S. conservatives and libertarians support so-called free market policies that often result in oligopolies that limit consumer choices in much the same way that the central governments of communist nations used to dole out limited varieties of goods and services. At this point in time, Americans have been so brainwashed about the evils of big "guvament," as Reagan used to call it, that they don't see how lobbyists for large corporations would love to make our business environment about as entrepreneurial as Cuba. Chairman Mao would surely be impressed with the success of these latest techniques in thought control. Thankfully, there are a few writers like you around to enlighten the entranced flock.

Paul Krugman: But don't forget — the antitrust people were really, really concerned about Whole Foods getting too much power!

Darren Staley, Millers Creek, N.C.: Your article hit me like a ton of bricks. To make a long story short, I was laid off, became disabled, and now spend my time taking online classes at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y., from my home in North Carolina.

Last month, at the beginning of the first summer session, my cable Internet access went out for over a week. As a person who depends on financial aid, I could not afford to drop the five-week course or get behind and suffer a poor grade.

My only other broadband option was, as you said, DSL from the only local phone company. They worked for over a week to get me intermittent access, but now it doesn't work at all.

Somehow, I bounced between the cable and phone services and aced the class. I am now in the second summer session using cable access that works okay, but afraid to turn my DSL modem that doesn't work back in because I fear another mishap, at which time I can have the phone company back out again.

The irony of it all is, the course I am now taking is Cybercrime, where I learn that rogue online criminals are the biggest threat to my Internet existence. I feel pretty comfortable on that end though, as my current level of access would annoy the cyber-criminals into submission!

Paul Krugman: I didn't mention what happens to service here when it rains heavily — let's hope I don't get cut off in the middle of this session.

Charles Pearson, Detroit: I have written previously, and truly find your column to be a source of inspiration. Many in my generation — I'm 32 — believe that broadband internet access is equivalent to access to roads, waterways etc. There should be a state oriented movement to make this an essential aspect of government, but there is overtly, at least in my region, not the case. This matter is crucial. What can people do, on a state-by-state level, to integrate and regard this matter essential infrastructure and not a governmentally sanctioned monopoly?

Paul Krugman: Get a new FCC ... and fix the 1996 law.

Jason Warren, New Paltz, N.Y.: I'm a captive Verizon broadband subscriber. My DSL connection is reliable — such is TPC — but going nowhere until Verizon gets around to installing FIOS here, and there's no hint about when that might happen. Verizon ignores queries about their plans. Time Warner offers a somewhat faster Internet service, but its reliability, judging from my cable TV experience, is suspect.

A few months ago, a former colleague at I.B.M. — I'm retired — sent me some Verizon PowerPoint presentations about its FIOS fiber optic offering, evidently aimed at potential business partners. The most interesting point was a bullet on about the 29th of 30 slides. It stated that Verizon FIOS, which includes VOIP, was a data service, and was therefore exempt from Common Carrier regulation. Common Carrier law predates Verizon by a few hundred years, so simply abandoning it seems significant, but that has gone without notice anywhere as far as I can tell. I think Internet neutrality may hinge on this interpretation.

Michael Powell's F.C.C. simply abandoned the concept of regulation and handed The Commons to the Telcos. It may be that these issues are too complex — or boring — for most people, but that doesn't mean that they're not crucially important.

Paul Krugman: I wrote about this in that 2002 article. The FCC pulled a linguistic trick, declaring that internet access is an "information service" rather than a common carrier, thus exempting the telcos from the regulation that made the dialup revolution possible.

Cal French, Paso Robles, Calif.: You are right on the mark on U.S. internet service. We live too far from town to get DSL over the phone lines. The fastest connection we can get on dial up is 26.4 kbps. Satellite service will cost $600 to install and $70 a month, and I hear from neighbors that it's not all that reliable.
What you do not mention is that electric utility companies could provide service over power lines that could be better and cheaper than phone lines. Those of us in U.S. rural areas look with envy not at Europe and Japan, but at our suburban and urban distant neighbors.

Paul Krugman: Believe it or not, when I moved into my house in 2003 — we're about 2 miles from the Princeton campus — I had the same problem, and we actually did get a satellite dish. It wasn't all that reliable or fast. In 2004, I think, Verizon made DSL available to my neighborhood — although it's much slower than the broadband friends in Manhattan have. We only got cable available last year. I think that's the U.S. story: even here in central New Jersey, an hour from the world's financial capital, broadband availability has been slow in coming and poor in quality.

Paul Box, Alice Springs, Australia: Great column. People seem to have fallen for the line that free-market capitalism just means letting private business do whatever it wants whenever it wants, without bothering to question what are the essential ingredients e.g., genuine competition in free markets that allow for an economy to flourish. Fortunately for the U.S. telecoms, they have boxes and boxes of anti-French propaganda that they can pull out to distract their users from the fact that they have a mediocre product. I can't help but wonder if, whenever this gets out, it will spawn more outrage than the health care issue? Mess with people's health care or retirement and they get fatalistic. Mess with their entertainment or Internet access, and you've got war!

Paul Krugman: Actually, I think health care matters more. But in a peculiar way they may be mutually supporting issues.

Sunday, July 22

A Woman Who’s Man Enough, by Maureen Dowd

A Woman Who’s Man Enough

Things are getting confusing out there in Genderville.

We have the ordinarily poker-faced secretary of defense crying over young Americans killed in Iraq.

We have The Washington Post reporting that Hillary Clinton came to the floor of the Senate in a top that put “cleavage on display Wednesday afternoon on C-SPAN2.”

We have Mitt Romney spending $300 for makeup appointments at Hidden Beauty, a mobile men’s grooming spa, before the California debate, even though NBC would surely have powdered his nose for free.

We have Elizabeth Edwards on a tear of being more assertive than her husband. She argued that John Edwards is a better advocate for women than Hillary, explaining that her own experience as a lawyer taught her that “sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women’s issues.”

We have Bill Clinton, who says he’d want to be known as First Laddie, defending his woman by saying, “I don’t think she’s trying to be a man.”

We have The Times reporting that Hillary’s campaign is quizzical about why so many women who are like Hillary — married, high income, professional types — don’t like her. A Times/CBS News poll shows that women view her more favorably than men, but she has a problem with her own demographic and some older women resistant to “a lady president” from the land of women’s lib.

In a huge step forward for her, The Times said that “all of those polled — both women and men — said they thought Mrs. Clinton would be an effective commander in chief.”

So gender isn’t Hillary’s biggest problem. Those who don’t like her said it was because they don’t trust her, or don’t like her values, or think she’s too politically expedient or phony.

There is a dread out there about 28 years of Bush-Clinton rule. But most people are not worried about Hillary’s ability to be strong. Anyone who can cast herself as a feminist icon while leading the attack on her husband’s mistresses, anyone who thinks eight years of presidential pillow talk qualifies her for the presidential pillow, is plenty tough enough to smack around dictators, and other Democrats.

John Edwards and Barack Obama often seem more delicate and concerned with looking pretty than Hillary does. Though the tallest candidate usually has the advantage, Hillary has easily dominated the debates without even wearing towering heels.

When she wrote to Bob Gates asking about the Pentagon’s plans to get out of Iraq, it took eight weeks for an under secretary, Eric Edelman, to send a scalding reply, suggesting that she was abetting enemy propaganda. But Mrs. Clinton hit back with a tart letter to Secretary Gates on Friday and scored something of a victory, since he issued a statement that did not back up his own creep.

Maybe Hillary has had her tear ducts removed. If she acted like a sob sister on the war the way Mr. Gates did, her critics would have a field day.

Even in an era when male politicians can mist up with impunity, it was startling to see the defense chief melt down at a Marine Corps dinner Wednesday night as he talked about writing notes every evening to the families of dead soldiers like Douglas Zembiec, a heroic Marine commander known as “the Lion of Falluja,” who died in Baghdad in May after giving up a Pentagon job to go on a fourth tour of Iraq. “They are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a Web page,” he said. “They are our country’s sons and daughters.”

The dramatic moment was disconcerting, because Mr. Gates, known as a decent guy who was leery of the Bushies’ black-and-white, bullying worldview, has clearly been worn down by his effort to sort out the Iraq debacle. He and Condi, who worked together under Bush I, have been trying to circumvent the vice president to close Gitmo without much success, while the president finds ingenious new ways to allow torture.

Mostly, though, it was moving — a relief to see a top official acknowledge the awful cost of this war. The arrogant Rummy was dismissive. The obtuse W. seems incapable of understanding how inappropriate his sunny spirits are. And the callous Cheney’s robo-aggression continues unabated. (What could be more nerve-racking than the thought of President Cheney, slated to happen for a couple of hours yesterday while Mr. Bush had a colonoscopy? Could it be — a Medal of Freedom for Scooter?)

Mr. Gates captured the sadness we feel about American kids trapped in a desert waiting to be blown up, sent there by men who once refused to go to a warped war themselves.

Friday, July 20

The Pentagon Insults Hillary Clinton. Big Mistake.

By Fred Kaplan
Posted Friday, July 20, 2007, at 6:05 PM ET

The extraordinary exchange of letters between Sen. Hillary Clinton and the undersecretary of defense for policy may turn out to be a signal event in the congressional debate over the Iraq war—and possibly in the 2008 presidential election.

The undersecretary's letter to Clinton embodies the administration's contempt for Congress, Democrats, anyone named Clinton, and—implicitly, in its tone—anyone who falls in these categories and is also a woman. It is the sort of letter that could arouse resentment among lots of senators, even Republicans—and among lots of female voters, especially those who are all too familiar with the condescension of powerful men.

For those of you who haven't been following in the blogs, here's the back story. On May 22, Clinton sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, requesting a briefing—for the relevant oversight committees, if not for her personally—about contingency plans for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

On July 16—eight weeks later—she received a reply from the undersecretary of defense for policy, Eric Edelman, saying that he was writing on behalf of Secretary Gates. After a page of boilerplate, Edelman got to the point:

Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. … Such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risk in order to achieve compromises of national reconciliation. …

He concluded:

I assure you, however, that as with other plans, we are always evaluating and planning for possible contingencies. As you know, it is long-standing departmental policy that operational plans, including contingency plans, are not related outside of the department.

I appreciate your interest in our mission in Iraq, and would be happy to answer any further questions.

In effect, Edelman was telling her three things. First, you're practically a traitor for even asking these questions. Second, maybe we do have contingency plans for withdrawal, but we're not going to tell you about them. Third, run along now, little lady, I've got work to do.

Today, Clinton wrote a second letter to Gates, informing him that this underling Edelman—"writing on your behalf"—seems to believe "that congressional oversight emboldens our enemies." Calling his letter "outrageous and dangerous," Clinton wondered whether it "accurately characterizes your views as secretary of defense." She then renewed her request for the briefing, "classified if necessary," and added, as a kicker, "I would appreciate the courtesy of a prompt response directly from you."

A couple basic facts need to be highlighted here.

First, Clinton's original letter to Gates was not at all extraordinary. Members of key congressional committees—on armed services, intelligence, or the defense subcommittees of the budget and appropriations panels—make such requests all the time, and they are generally honored. (Clinton is a member of the Senate armed services committee.) In the range of sensitive material that officials routinely present to these committees, contingency planning for an Iraqi troop withdrawal is fairly low-grade.

Second, these contingency plans do exist. In February 2006, U.S. Army generals in Iraq started asking military archivists to dig up official records from the 1970s involving troop withdrawals from Vietnam. The generals were interested in procedures for disposing and transferring military property, the precise sequence of demobilization—the basic logistics of pulling out. The intention was explicit: They knew they would, at some point, be staging a withdrawal from Iraq. Once it began, it could spin out of control, so they needed an advance plan for an orderly exit. (I wrote about this request in an article for the Atlantic a year ago.)

Clinton was expressing the same concern as the generals. "Congress must be sure," she wrote in her May letter to Gates, "that we are prepared to withdraw our forces without any unnecessary danger." She mentioned nothing about withdrawing now or even soon: She asked only whether the military now has a blueprint for when the time to leave comes. There's nothing heretical or traitorous about this line of inquiry, either. Even President Bush acknowledges that U.S. troops will leave Iraq at some point.

As a discrete episode, this spat may soon fade away. Gates, who may well have no more than a dim awareness of Edelman's letter (or of Clinton's initial request), will probably eat the proverbial humble pie by sending over someone with a classified briefing—or maybe even delivering it himself.

But as a political symbol, the incident may have greater endurance. Senators put up with a lot of evasion and deceit from the executive branch, but one thing they will not tolerate is being explicitly left out of the loop. In his letter to Clinton, Edelman not only said she had no business in the loop, he all but accused of her treason for asking to be let in. If senators feel the slightest tug of solidarity (and they tend to, on matters of senatorial privilege), they may rally around their trampled colleague. The sense of insult may spill over into their feelings about the war in general and perhaps strengthen, if just slightly, the ranks of the opposed.

As for the broader electorate, women have famously mixed feelings about Hillary Clinton, but many of them tend to drop their caveats when they sense that her womanhood is under attack. In her 2000 Senate campaign, a turning point came toward the end of the candidates' debate in Buffalo, when her Republican opponent, Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio, charged her podium and pestered her to sign a pledge to take no soft money.

Maureen Dowd wrote (purchase required) for the next day's New York Times about a woman in the audience who switched to Hillary at that moment because Lazio "suddenly conjured up the image of her husband, waving a credit card receipt in her face, yelling at her that she had overcharged, his eyes bulging, his veins popping, screaming at her to return everything to the store."

Dowd may have slightly overdramatized, but the woman in Buffalo was not alone. Polls the following week showed a huge spike in support for Clinton among suburban women, who until the debate had been divided or slightly leaning toward Lazio.

Eric Edelman wasn't yelling at Clinton, but he was patronizing her ("I appreciate your interest in our mission in Iraq. …"), shooing her away from serious men's business—and that may, in its own way, decisively rankle.

Who is this Edelman? He's had a long career in the diplomatic corps, going back to the Reagan years and continuing through the presidencies of the first Bush and Clinton. He's been ambassador to Turkey and Finland, deputy chief of mission to the Czech Republic, special assistant to secretaries of state. None of these posts has required him to deal much with pesky senators. Professionally cultivated indifference may have ratcheted upward to hostility during the first two and a half years of George W. Bush's first term, when he served as Vice President Dick Cheney's deputy assistant for national security. Like so much else poisonous about this administration, then, the clash can be traced back to Cheney.

Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.