Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Coming War in Iraq

As “the surge” of U.S. troops into Iraq shows no sign of effecting change, a new military strategy is becoming apparent. US troops are cooperating with Sunni militias against al Qaeda. This according to a Washington Post article (Partow, J.: U.S. Strategy on Sunnis Questioned. WP, 6/18/07). Both Kurdish and Shiite leaders are skeptical, hostile, and no doubt fearful about the strategy, especially the Shiite-led central government.

U.S. officials say that “…as long as the Sunni groups are watched closely and kept from mistreating people, the intelligence they provide about al-Qaeda in Iraq makes them valuable partners.”

Could the U.S. commanders really be this naïve? Are they just doing something for the sake of doing something? It seems pretty obvious to everyone (except possibly the military and the White House) that:

1. U.S. troops are going to start coming home soon, probably no later than January 21, 2009. Not all will come back, but the drawdown will begin.

2. It is only the U.S. that keeps the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds from each other’s throats, and we are doing an increasingly poor job of that.

3. The moment U.S. troops are out of there (or mostly out), there will be a full scale civil war, mostly between Sunnis and Shiites. Kurds will be content to establish and protect “Kurdistan.”

4. The Sunnis fully expect Iran to step in with weapons and money, if not with troops, helping them overwhelm the current Shiite dominated government, restoring Sunni rule as it was in the days of Saddam. This is the most likely outcome.

So why on earth would the U.S. be supporting Sunnis with training, weapons and money? An apparent reason is that they are trying to force the Shiite government to reconcile with the Sunnis. This U.S. Sunni partnership is ostensibly executed through the central government’s ministry of interior, but that is just a fig leaf. The central government is openly hostile to the strategy. Reconciliation is an American pipe dream.

Could the U.S. really believe that the main problem in Iraq is al Qaeda? Don’t they see the coming civil war makes al Qaeda irrelevant in Iraq?

When the the civil war has started in earnest, will we be tempted to engage a proxy war against Iran as we back the Shiite central government just as we backed the puppet South Vietnamese government some thirty years ago? If so, the Russians will side with Iran and it will be the cold war all over again. We can only hope it stays cold.

How blind, how stupid, can U.S. policy be? Why can’t we just let go of this invasion that served no purpose in the first place? Why not get out quickly and let Iran have its way in Iraq. Why would that be so bad? Loss of face? Faces can be repainted!

Or we can partition the country now, in a modified Biden plan, granting authority to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to administer the three factions. Let them fight the surrogate war, or stifle it, as they see fit.

Sure, there is risk of broader war, ultimately threatening our dear pals, the Saudis. We can respond to that if we are asked, and if we are not too busy in Afghanistan.

That’s probably the least awful way to extract from a miserable quagmire. Unfortunately, the current administration is so totally blind and arrogant that they probably will make the situation far worse than it is now, closing off even that exit strategy.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Predicting the Scooter Pardon

Lewis "Scooter" Libby, aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and sentenced to 2.5 years in jail. He petitioned the court to remain free while his appeal was pending. That was denied today, so he is headed for hard time within a week or two.

(Picture: ABC News)

Will President Bush pardon the Scooter? I believe it is all but certain that he will. It is within his right and he has nothing to lose. The president is a fierce defender of personal loyalty and owes allegiance himself to Dick Cheney.

The justifications will be 1. In consideration of long years of selfless national service. 2. Nobody was ever charged with a crime in the investigation he obstructed, therefore there was nothing to obstruct.

Not mentioned will be: 1. Obstruction is a crime in itself. 2. So is perjury.

When will it happen? As soon as it becomes obvious to the president that there is no chance of getting immigration reform passed under this congress, he will issue the pardon. There is a chance he will hold out until the Iraq progress report and re-funding in September, but by then, Libby will be behind bars, so that is less likely. Least likely is a pardon issued in the last days of office, in mid-January, 2009, because Libby would have served almost half his sentence by then.

Why do nearly all presidents value personal loyalty above decency, ethics, law, and even the oath of office? There must be something in the White House water supply.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Immigration Reform: What’s the Objection?

I just spent (wasted) two valuable prime-time working hours searching the internet in an attempt to discover what the objections are to the senate proposal on immigration reform. I could not find any sensible arguments, so I still don’t know.

Senate bill S 1348 can be reviewed at

The bill would allow illegal immigrants in the country before 2007 to receive renewable four-year visas after paying fees and fines, and eventually get on a path to citizenship.
(Sen. Sessions. Photo: Doug Mills, NY Times)

It would create a guest worker program that would give two-year visas to 400,000 workers a year, (amended to half that number, then further amended to expire after 5 years).

None of those programs would go into effect until additional border agents were hired and the construction of hundreds of miles of border fencing were completed.

Republicans especially are against this bill. Why? I struggled to find out.

Wages and Jobs?
North Dakota Democratic Sen. Dorgan says the guest worker program is part of a strategy to put downward pressure on American wages. Presumably, this “strategy” is pursued by business people, such as mega-farmers, hoteliers, and food processing firms. There might be some truth to that.

But what is the alternative? I just spent $150 in Seattle for one night in a clean but low-end hotel. I had a tiny room with a window overlooking a busy 6-lane highway. The room was colorfully illuminated all night by a giant, neon Pepsi sign across the street. That hotel probably pays $7.93 an hour, the minimum wage, to housekeeping and other staff. Some of the staff, perhaps most, may be legal citizens. It could just be coincidence that most of them speak only Spanish. To fill 100% of those jobs with legals, they probably would have to offer at least twice that, plus some kind of health plan. Since labor is the main cost, it is likely that the price of the room would at least double at the higher rate, probably more than double in order to fill all jobs with solid, low turnover, legal employees. A $250 room in a moderate hotel downtown would probably go for $500 to $800 a night.

Likewise, apples might cost $6 a pound instead of $2. Maybe more, because who would you get to do backbreaking orchard work in rural counties, even at $15? In general, we could probably look to a doubling or tripling of food prices, including fruits, vegetables, cereals and meat and fish.

Would consumers pay up? Maybe they would. Gas prices have tripled recently and nobody seemed to mind. Maybe it would be the same for food and hotels. It would be a heck of a shock to the economy in any case. It’s hard to imagine what it would do to the travel business and the food production and distribution industries. Certainly the people who worked in those industries would still not be able to afford their own product.

Personally, I would eschew hotels altogether at those prices, which would mean severely curtailing domestic travel. I would also alter my food-buying patterns to avoid supermarkets in favor of local growers. I would not even consider a restaurant. If most people did the same, it would radically change the U.S. economy.

If consumers pushed back against the higher prices, which seems likely, the affected industries would move out of the country, for food, or close up shop altogether, for most hotels. That would ripple into the entire travel industry, and much of the entertainment industry as well. In turn, that would drastically affect municipal tax systems in unpredictable ways. I haven’t even considered the effects on restaurants and other industries that are price-supported by illegal workers at low wages. But for sure, a vast number of businesses and jobs would be lost without that support.

But such economic and social upheaval is apparently a fair tradeoff for people like Senator Dorgan. I think it’s far too radical. Can this really be a serious objection to immigration?

Republican senator Sessions of Alabama is among the conservatives resisting the proposed immigration bill. In the New York Times of June 7, he is quoted, “I just don’t think that all 12 million people, including single people who broke the border last December, need to be put on a guaranteed path to citizenship.”

Why don’t these people “need” a path to legitimacy? Because they are law-breakers, criminals. They sneaked into the country and that’s against the law; thus the term “illegal immigrants.” Conservatives, who call the senate bill an “amnesty,” complain that it would reward law-breakers.

Anyone who reads the bill certainly knows that it is not a simple forgive-and-forget amnesty. Assuming that conservatives like Mr. Sessions have read the bill, they must be deliberately misrepresenting it for some reason. The only possible reason would be to hide other motivations, whatever those might be.

But suppose we did construe the bill as a limited form of amnesty. After all, the illegals are here illegally, and even after paying retribution and meeting other conditions, including returning to their home country, the fact that they could eventually return and apply for legal status, could be construed, in a tortured roundabout way, as a kind of amnesty. Let’s just say it is, for sake of argument.

What would be wrong with that? Why is amnesty a bad thing? It has been successful in solving social problems in many countries, notably South Africa of late, but also in the U.S. after our own civil war. What is this knee-jerk reaction against “rewarding” a misdemeanor offense? Could the argument be that it would start us on a slippery slope of rewarding all crimes? That’s just insane.

The reaction against amnesty seems to amount to nothing more than petulant pride, as if the granters of such “rewards” would be somehow diminished by it. But it is not clear how they would be diminished. The objection on grounds of amnesty is an immature and irrational emotional reaction, not a reasonable objection.

Is there a hidden racist agenda in objection to immigration reform? Are conservatives afraid of being overrun by hoards of brown people?

I think there is a lot of that sentiment, although it cannot be spoken in polite company. I gather that impression from remarks overheard in border states such as California and Arizona.

I also get this impression from my own experience driving north between San Diego and Los Angeles through the hills east of the coastal freeways, or coming north into Tucson from the border. There are numerous Border Patrol checkpoints, through which every vehicle must pass in single file. The uniformed, weapon-bearing, mirror-sunglassed officer looks through your windshield to see if the driver is brown or white, and being white, I get waved through on a rolling stop with a flick of the finger. No words are exchanged.

These checkpoints are humiliating to me as an American, and they don’t even inconvenience me. If the Border Patrol at least compared my ID to a database of bad guys, I would feel there something more at stake than pure racism.

According to Wikipedia, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization that advocates reform of U.S. immigration policies to improve border security and stop illegal immigration, and to reduce even legal immigration into the United States to around 300,000 people a year. In 2005, an article in the liberal political magazine, The American Prospect, called FAIR "the anti-immigration movement’s most powerful institution".

Yet disturbingly, according to the article, FAIR has been criticized for accepting contributions from the Pioneer Fund, which was described by a Wall Street Journal editorial as a "white-supremacist outfit devoted to racial purity through eugenics.”

One must not accuse all objectors to immigration reform of being racists because of a few associations like the one mentioned above, but we can at least observe that racism is a documented component of some immigration reform sentiment.

Another objection to immigration reform is the hint of old-fashioned xenophobia, irrational fear of someone different. It’s just this side of racism, not yet as pernicious. I heard some Senator on television (didn’t get his name), whining that when he was on vacation in a small town in a border state he could not find a store where English was spoken. He was apparently horrified at the prospect of bilingualism or multilingualism in America. Why? Presumably because he doesn’t happen to speak any languages but English.

Bilingualism is already a fact of life in the Southwest. The population of Los Angeles is 53% Latino now. And anyway, what is wrong with bilingualism? It enriches the mind and the culture in general.

I think this objection boils down to an irrational fear reaction. I saw a telling comment on some news blog: “Send all the illegals back to fix their own countries and not ruin ours by trying to make us like them......I AM NOT SPANISH AND DON'T WANT them here!”

I can sympathize with the fear that ignorance breeds, but it surely cannot be taken as a rational reason to oppose immigration reform.

I could find only one sensible reason for opposing immigration reform, but it is not one that any critic of the senate bill cites. That reason is that most Americans are against immigration of all kinds, legal or illegal, and have been for a long time, even though most Americans are descended from recent immigrants. It’s the “close the door behind me” (CDBM) syndrome. Every national poll on the topic since 1976 has shown that a majority of Americans desire to cut immigration.

A recent Roper poll found that 70 per cent of all Americans wanted immigration levels between zero and 300,000 people annually. America's long-term immigration tradition before Congress changed the law in 1965 was a little over 200,000 a year; it was 178,000 a year for the forty years before that.

The Roper survey also found that among affluent Americans, only 11 per cent favored immigration levels above 300,000, and among Americans who identify themselves as Republican, sentiment runs 20 to 1 against the current immigration level of about 600,000.

In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 30% of Americans oppose the senate bill and 11% favor it. (The rest don’t know enough to have an opinion). Among critics, 39% cite "amnesty" as a reason for their opposition.

The plain fact is that most Americans do not support any kind of immigration. Politicians, as elected officials of the people, according to one theory of government, have the duty to express the will of their electorate and therefore they should loudly and vociferously oppose any immigration reform that amounts to anything other than a policy of shut the doors and close the windows on America. That’s what the people want.

Yet according to a slightly more sophisticated theory of government, politicians are leaders. As leaders it is their duty to explain to their constituents that their own self-interests are not well-served by ignorance, fear and racism. Unfortunately, instead of leadership, we see only posturing and hear only euphemism.

If anti-immigration conservatives were honest, they would state that their objection to the senate bill is the “closed door” policy that their constituents want. No one could accuse them of dark and dishonest motives if they did that.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Is the Global War on Terror a Bumper Sticker?

On Wednesday, 5/30/07, John Edwards told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, "The War on Terror is a slogan designed only for politics, not a strategy to make America safe. It's a bumper sticker, not a plan." It is a slogan used to justify the war in Iraq and "bludgeon political opponents," he said.

He repeated the bumper sticker assertion during the latest Democratic candidates’ televised debate, which is where I first heard it.

Among fellow Democratic candidates, there is disagreement on the matter. Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama insist that there is a war on terror.

The reaction from the right has been withering. According to Fox, Republican candidate Rudolph Guliani replied, “"This global War on Terror is going on whether John Edwards recognizes it or not. It's not like it's controlled, there are people planning to come here and kill us all over the world."

It is worthwhile to try and discern what Edwards meant.

Is there a war on?
Yes, more than one. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are full-out shooting wars of serious consequence. I don’t think it is reasonable to suggest that Edwards was saying there is no war.

Are there terrorists bent on harming the U.S.?
Of course there are, as recent history proves. The day after Edwards’ speech, four men were arrested for allegedly planning to blow up a fuel pipeline serving JFK airport. It is not plausible to suggest that Edwards meant that there are no terrorists.

And incidentally, those alleged terrorist plotters were not foiled by armed forces in full battle gear and blazing weapons. They were foiled by good police work.

Are we in a war with terrorists?
News people love war and the media is quick to label the slightest disagreement a “war”. The term is thus stretched metaphorically to the thinness of cellophane. That’s why we also have a war on drugs and a war on cancer. I recall a war on poverty too. Some years ago we had a war on inflation. I think we won that one. Those are all bumper stickers, not real wars. It’s pretty obvious that was Edwards’ meaning.

There is no literal war on terror because “terror” is a victim’s emotional reaction to terrorist acts. If we were to literally attack terror, we would have to attack ourselves, since we are the ones terrorized. So that is nuts.

In addition, “terror” is an abstraction, nothing you could literally fight. A war on terror makes as much sense as having a war on mediocrity, or a war on metaphor. You cannot literally conduct a war against an abstraction. (And that includes “Islam.”)

What if we said there is a war on terrorists, those people who make us feel terrified? War is an armed conflict between nations or states, but the terrorists of interest are not obvious agents of any nation. If we wanted a literal war on terrorists, the obvious action would be to attack Saudi Arabia, since that’s where most of the 9-11 attackers came from and where bin Laden is from. But we’re not doing that because… well, you know why.

So if you declare a “global war on terror” and act like you mean it literally, who are you going to shoot? “The enemy” is not defined. So you can shoot anybody you darn well please, and that’s why it is such a brilliant slogan. It justifies anything, as Edwards correctly pointed out.

I admire Edwards for having the intelligence to see through the Bush administrations’ sloganeering (he may have read Lakoff’s new book on framing), and for having the political courage to reframe administration policy accordingly.

However, it may have been a self-defeating gesture because most Americans are, shall we say, not quite that analytical, and will interpret his meaning to be that he does not take terrorism seriously, and that as a president he would not be committed absolutely to the safety of our country. Of course those are absurd ideas, but absurdity matters in our political system.

Obama and Clinton surely also see the transparent cynicism of the “war on terror” slogan, but are astute enough to realize that their best strategy is to appear as fearless warriors, “tough on defense,” to counter a widespread delusion that Democrats aren’t. They see that there is no percentage in questioning the meaning of the slogan. The electorate cannot follow Edwards' linguistic analysis and they know it.

So as much as I admire Edwards for speaking the truth, I fear it demonstrates his misunderstanding of the American voter and it lowers my confidence in his ability to win. He must be naïve because it is too early to be desperate for publicity.