Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Iraqi State That Doesn't Exist

The primary characteristic of a national government is a monopoly on the use of force; without this, a state does not in any meaningful sense exist. Governments have two means to this end: fear and intimidation or moral and political legitimacy. For most of Iraq’s modern history, the former was the one employed by a succession of monarchs and despots culminating with Saddam Hussein.

Now that Iraq’s government is pseudo-democratic, its power must be derived from the Iraqi people’s faith in the notion of a coherent and unified country. This faith is tested when the government directs the military to suppress unrest in one part of the country in the name of national unity. Two things immediately become known: whether there is sufficient faith in the Iraqi government to compel soldiers to fight against their fellow countrymen, and perhaps more importantly, whether the Iraqi government has the capacity to neutralize rogue elements that threaten its monopoly on force.

The recent incursion by the Iraqi military into the southern city of Basra demonstrated not only that there are significant numbers of Iraqi soldiers unwilling to fight against fellow Iraqis (as evidenced by thousands of desertions), but the inability of the Maliki government to exert control in crucial parts of the country.

Unfortunately, the situation is actually worse than it seems.

Even with the help of significant American air power and troops, Maliki was unable to defeat Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra or any other Iraqi city. The result is a further weakened national government and a further empowered rival Shiite faction, one whose main demand is for Americans to leave Iraq.

Why Maliki decided at this point to take on the militias in the South, and to what extent he was targeting the Mahdi Army or other rogue elements, is still not entirely clear. It appears likely that the move was aimed at strengthening his party, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, before the upcoming provincial elections. So this was probably part of an intra-Shiite power play that in fact resolved nothing.

So the intra-Shiite competition is heating up. The Kurds in the North continue to hunger for independence. The Sunnis,whom we have been arming for months, are becoming restless with the lack of political reconciliation. Only Iran seems to be gaining from these developments. It continues to forge ties with the two dominant Shiite blocs, so that it stands to benefit no matter which side ultimately triumphs; and it continues to target American soldiers via proxies (although the extent of this is unknown).

As America’s reality-based presidential candidates acknowledge, the only options we really have in Iraq are bad and worse. No wonder the invasion is considered the worst foreign policy disaster in American history. There is no end in sight, and it appears that our shifting tactics are doing little to affect the fundamental fact that for all practical purposes an Iraqi nation-state no longer exists.

P.S. Seems like Frank Rich of the NYT had similar thoughts.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Iraq Opportunity Cost Bites the U.S.

This past week’s events in Pakistan refocused attention on the region where Al Qaeda and the Taliban are the strongest. With America still mired in the Bush Administration’s misguided invasion of Iraq, it is abundantly clear that the nexus of training camps, hard-to-get too mountainous bases, and widespread popular support for Islamic extremists is still centered in Afghanistan, and to an even greater extent in its eastern neighbor, Pakistan.

In fact, Al Qaeda is not only operating exactly the type of training camps in Waziristan, Pakistan that spawned the 9/11 attacks, but the influence of the Taliban in the region is growing and threatens to spread to neighboring countries as well.

Some supporters of the Iraq War and President Bush’s policy claim that the problems in this area of the world run deep and would exist whether or not we had invaded Iraq. They assert that the U.S. military is large enough and strong enough to take on multiple adversaries at the same time. While no doubt there is truth to these claims, they are far from the whole truth.

America’s resources are not infinite, especially our political and diplomatic resources; our civilian leadership can effectively manage only so many crises at one time. Any sober analysis of the past six years must conclude that the Iraq War has imposed a tremendous opportunity cost, on top of its direct costs in Iraqi and American lives, dollars, and U.S. standing around the world.

It strains credulity to hold that the United States was better off invading Iraq rather than focusing on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and rebuilding that region of the world; had we done the latter, there is no way it would be the stronghold for our enemies that it is today.

One of the principle reasons that Musharraf declared emergency rule is because the Pakistani military has suffered a string of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Waziristan. This is also the reason that the Bush Administration is loathe to criticize him too harshly and cut off aid; the threat in Waziristan is dire.

As much as I deplore Musharraf’s antidemocratic moves and believe that the he does not represent the future of Pakistan, it is not difficult to understand his motives. Pakistan used to be allied with the Taliban, but after 9/11 Musharraf decided to partner with the U.S. in its fight against extremists in exchange for aid; the close relationship with the U.S. would give him a counterweight to India. Ever since the Bush Administration bungled the job in Afghanistan and allowed many of the worst militants to escape into Pakistan (including bin Laden), these fighters have been routing Pakistani troops and gaining local support.

America’s inability to finish the job in Afghanistan has worsened Musharraf’s situation in his own country and now presents an existential threat to the nation. This is not meant to deflect attention from his many failings; it is meant only to point out that the situation has grown markedly worse due to American failures. These failures were not inevitable: they were the product of bad decisions and bad judgments. Choices have consequences.

The Bush Administration was quick to declare victory in Afghanistan and move on to Iraq, when in fact, the job was not finished. What is now unfolding in Pakistan threatens to spiral out of control and has dramatically increased the threat of terrorism in the most unstable part of the world, in an area which already possesses nuclear weapons (unlike Iran, where they are years away at the earliest).

If I were a consultant to the Democrats I would urge them to stress this narrative of poor judgment, which has left us less safe, day and night.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

How The War On Drugs Undermines Democracy

The “war on drugs” will ultimately go down in history as one of the most ill-conceived, unjust, and plainly stupid set of policies ever enacted. It is a failure on every level and a black hole for tens billions of dollars every year (here's what Walter Cronkite has to say about it). While most of its failings are well known (e.g., absurdly high incarceration rates for non-violent offenses and the diversion of law enforcement from serious threats), there is increasing evidence that this misguided war is undermining democracy around the world.

From Columbia to Guatemala, from Mexico to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the war on drugs is creating political chaos and empowering criminal elements that are literally ripping apart the democratic fabric of these nations.

Take Mexico for example, to which President Bush has just pledged $500 million for drug enforcement efforts. Ever since the U.S. began cracking down on Miami as a port of entry for drugs from Latin America, traffickers have switched to Mexico as the preferred entry point. This has led to the growth of drugs gangs that have unleashed a massive wave of violence and killed thousands of people over the last few years, including policemen, army personnel, and innocent civilians. As a result entire states in Mexico are now essentially under military occupation.

Much the same can be said for Guatemala and Columbia, where drug gangs routinely assassinate political leaders and have created such a culture of fear that the countries can aptly be described as “narco-states”.

But what is happening on the other side of the world in Afghanistan is particularly troubling. Not only did we unwisely divert resources from rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan to the war in Iraq, we now seem intent on doing everything we can to disrupt the booming poppy trade even if it enrages the Afghan farmers and drives them into the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

There is no doubt that the poppy trade is fueling these terrorist organizations, but the best way to dampen their influence is not to turn the farmers against us by destroying their livelihood. Instead we should buy the poppy directly from them at high prices. We could use the crops to help supply morphine to developing world nations which desperately need the drug for legitimate medical purposes; doing this would produce goodwill for the U.S. at a time when we could certainly use it.

Instead we are stubbornly maintaining our ideological opposition to illegal drugs and are preparing to spray the Afghan fields with herbicides, which will kill the plants and poison wildlife and humans alike. This is insane; it’s hard to imagine a better way to alienate the Afghan farmers and force them into the arms of our enemies. Unfortunately, this insanity is totally consistent with our irrational decades-long “war on drugs” policy.

Still there may be a glimmer of hope.

With national security concerns seeming to trump all else these days, maybe the glaring contradiction between pursuing the war on drugs and our stated aim of global democracy will lead to a reevaluation of the policy (at least in Afghanistan).

I’m not holding my breath.

P.S. Get a taste for how brutal Mexican drug cartels are and how the U.S. supplies them with their firepower here.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Perfect Bait And Switch

Civilian control of the military is not only one of the great benefits of today’s democracies; it is also one of the most profound political developments of the modern era.

Clearly there are hazards to having the military in charge of those who may not have fought in wars, and therefore cannot know first-hand the horrors of war. But those hazards are small compared to having active-duty generals in charge of both a country’s military and politics. For instance, there is no shortage of military men whose experience in battle only increases their appetite for military incursions, and who are apt to view all foreign policy politics as contests of military might.

Probably no example in American history better demonstrates the benefits of civilian leadership over the military than the Cuban Missile Crisis. If the military leaders had had their way the U.S. would likely have bombed Cuba, believing that the Soviet nuclear warheads were not yet operational. In fact they were operational, and recent documents show that both Castro and the Soviets were prepared to launch a nuclear strike on America if Cuba was attacked. Only the wisdom and restraint of the Kennedy team, many of whom were formerly in the military, averted the disaster.

Most importantly, civilian leadership puts the responsibility for foreign policy and the conduct of war exactly where it should be: on elected officials who are accountable to the people. Without this check it would be much harder for the public to exert any influence on American foreign policy, including waging war.

And yet this chain of accountability has been utterly broken by one of the Bush Administration’s most effective “bait and switches”. Back in 2006 Bush started using the rhetoric that he was “listening to the generals”; it was a masterful way to shift the blame away from him and his administration so that he could contend that he was just following what the generals were telling him.

This tactic of deflecting attention away from his own failed policies reached its apex recently when he shifted all the attention to General Petraeus. No longer did Bush have to answer for his policy decisions; they were all in the hands of a single general who would periodically brief Congress.

And the media rolled over (yet again).

When Petraeus testified in September there were reams of media coverage dissecting his statistics and whether the “surge” was working; there was next to nothing on how Bush’s rationale for the war had shifted yet again (to we can’t leave because it will get worse). The Administration’s original metrics for success were barely discussed.

Most troubling about this shift is that it’s become increasingly clear (despite the mythology perpetrated by the Right) that the generals are not apolitical actors who “tell it like it is”. In fact they have their own agendas and are loathe to openly criticize Administration policy.

Until they retire that is.

General Sanchez, once a major cheerleader for the war, is the most recent retired general to change his tune once he begins collecting his pension. Just last week he unleashed a tirade of criticism on the administration and described the war as a colossal failure. One can only wonder whether there are any high-ranking military officers willing to openly criticize the war while they actually have some say in its conduct.

We now have a situation where the civilian leadership under Bush has absolved itself of responsibility and the generals are playing along. The result: an indefinite occupation which no one seems to have a clue how to end.

Expect lots more money down the drain and lots more body bags. And then Bush will tiptoe out of office and leave the mess to the next administration.

This is not how American democracy was supposed to work.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Dangers Of Utopianism

I just finished reading Arthur Koestler’s 1940 anti-Stalinist masterpiece Darkness at Noon. It’s about a former high-level Russian Communist who is jailed by the Party when things do not turn out as planned and reactionary forces take over. The novel grapples with the big moral question of how people can commit heinous crimes in the pursuit of utopian dreams.

In many ways it is a question as old as humanity itself. Groups that promise a new “golden age” are almost always willing to engage in the most barbarous acts in order to get there. These utopias can be religious or secular, they can lead their followers to the Crusades or to communism and fascism. No matter how much the brutality escalates, believers are always assured that the end is just around the corner and things will get better; they will make good on their promises and all will be forgiven.

The book’s main moral lesson is the rejection of the doctrine that “the ends justify the means”. Western Civilization is premised on the exact opposite precept: that individual liberties are inalienable rights, and are not to be trampled on and sacrificed in the name of some distant utopia.

But the urge for utopia is not confined to the great outrages of religious crusades and Russian communism; it also found in the history of colonialism and in its most recent incarnation, the Iraq War.

Colonialist history is filled with accounts of massive brutality waged against indigenous peoples in the name of making them more civilized. Without fail, the perpetrators of these crimes always cited the best interests of the natives; the colonizers convinced themselves (and tried to convince their victims) that the barbarity of the present would be rewarded with the stability and prosperity of the future.

Before I draw this analogy to the Iraq War let me make it clear that the goal of having a democratic Middle East is a noble goal, and in no way am I equating the Bush Administration and its supporters with the icons of communism and fascism. In addition, I believe that the American military has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties and not engage in the “scorched Earth” policy that was common in previous wars.

But that is largely beside the point.

The invasion of Iraq has diminished if not destroyed the life prospects of an entire generation of Iraqi mothers, fathers and children. More than two million Iraqis have been displaced and may live out the rest of their lives in the squalor and second-class citizenship of refugee camps in foreign lands. Virtually no Iraqi families have escaped unscathed; almost all have had family members brutally murdered. The country’s infrastructure is in a shambles and daily life is miserable almost everywhere (except in the Kurdish north, which was stable even before the war).

But, we are told by the war supporters, in words eerily reminiscent of Darkness at Noon, that this is a “generational effort”; when we look back from the vantage point of history 50 years from now, Iraq will be prosperous and free; all of the death and destruction will have been worth it.

What they are saying is that the ends justify the means (and even these ends are not in the least guaranteed).

This is an immoral proposition that runs counter to the foundations of Western democracy and liberty. No Western power has the right to sacrifice an entire generation of Iraqis for some far-off and uncertain objective. It is not our choice to make. It is the Iraqis’ choice, and they did not ask to be guinea pigs in our grand experiment to remake the Middle East.

What we did have the right to do was protect ourselves, which after 9/11 legitimately included getting additional weapons inspectors into Iraq and even taking offensive action against Saddam Hussein if he didn’t cooperate. It did not include the right to invade and endlessly occupy the country, which led almost directly to the chaos and carnage that we now witness.

Utopian fantasies are always dangerous and immoral, even if they come wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and freedom. This is a lesson that we have not learned, despite the fact that history is littered with examples.

P.S. As if on cue, there is a great piece in the NYT magazine that examines how Iraqi exiles are coming to grips with the failures in Iraq. The piece touches on many of the themes in this piece and also shows once again that Al Qeada has been a peripheral factor in the war, not the central actor as the neocons would have us believe.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Aftermath Of Ahmadinejad’s Speech

Last week I made the case that Ahmadinejad’s request to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site should have been approved. It wasn’t, but the Iranian President was invited to talk at Columbia University. Predictably, many on the right accused Columbia President Lee Bollinger of giving in to this dictator’s propaganda ploy.

The speech went ahead as planned, but something strange happened.

Many on the right, including some who originally opposed the event, grudgingly admitted that it might have actually served U.S. interests. They were notably happy with Bollinger’s harsh treatment of Ahmadinejad (which in my view actually blunted Bollinger’s words and made him appear to be bowing to the right-leaning New York Post), but they were even more happy with Ahmadinejad’s miserable performance. Not only did he throw in more Holocaust denial rhetoric, he denied that there were gays in Iran, said Iranian women were the freest in the world, blurted out bizarre Koranic passages and requested that the messiah come soon. In short, for all the world to see, he came across as the fanatic and out-of-touch despot that he is.

Iranian television naturally tried to spin the event in their leader’s favor, showing selective clips and complaining about the rude treatment he received. But these passages from Iranian bloggers show clearly that in the age of the internet it is next to impossible to hide the truth, even for dictatorial regimes.

There are still those who claim that allowing Ahmadinejad to speak was a bad move since the U.S. has no obligation to provide any forum to a maniacal ruler. In my view this is myopic; it reeks of the hypocrisy that is all too common these days, and has contributed to America’s diminished standing in the world.

Iran is progressive compared to Saudi Arabia, and yet the Saudi royal family gets special tours of the Bush ranch in Crawford and family members walk arm in arm with the President. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive, and unmarried women are forbidden to appear with men in public. Meanwhile the royal family continues to bankroll terrorists around the world, which helps explain why a disproportionate number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis are in fact from Saudi Arabia.

President Mubarak of Egypt, who receives billions in U.S. aid, jails and tortures political dissidents. President Musharraf of Pakistan is not much better, yet he too gets face time with our top leaders and gets treated with extreme respect. And don’t forget those Sunni sheiks whom Bush just visited in Iraq for photo-ops, whom he said were “good men” fighting al Qaeda; only months ago they were major leaders of the insurgency and were shedding American blood.

But it is not consistency or fairness that leads me to advocate American forums for the world’s despots. It is because it is in our interests, as the Columbia event demonstrated. The more we can show how deranged the Ahmadinejads of the world are, while at the same time presenting ourselves as a free and open society confident in its values and its commitment to freedom and human rights, the surer we are to come away the winner. We cannot win every propaganda battle, every exchange of soundbites, but we will win the larger war of ideas. And we must not shy away from it.

A conservative friend of mine, once a supporter of President Bush, even one-upped me on this score. He suggested that we not only allow the dictators of the world to speak on our soil and debate us, but that we make it an open invitation with full expenses paid whenever they want. He too understands that this is not a left-right issue; all of us should be confident that America has nothing to fear from the rants of madmen. Hearing them out only shows our real strength to the world’s people.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Speech I Would Like To Have Heard From The President

(In response to the Iranian President’s request to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site.)

Fellow Americans and citizens of the world:

It is no secret that the U.S. and Iran governments are at odds on many fronts. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are enemies. Iran is sponsoring terrorism throughout the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, where our soldiers are sometimes the victims. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has made thinly veiled threats against Israel, recently hosted a conference for Holocaust deniers, and has defied the United Nation’s mandate to curtail its nuclear program.

And now, before visiting this very same institution in New York City, he has asked that he be allowed to lay a wreath at the site of the greatest terrorist attack in our history.

Like many of you, my first reaction was disgust and anger.

But then I thought again about the great struggle we are in against the jihadists and the forces of extremism around the world.

Above all else, this is a struggle for hearts and minds. In the Cold War it was not military action that ended the strife, but the recognition that the Western system of free markets and democracy produced better outcomes and led to more prosperous societies. The same must happen today. Those in the Arab and Muslim world must come to realize that open societies, with human rights like freedom of speech and religion, are not tools of Western imperialism; instead they represent the highest aspirations of all peoples, including their own.

And so I put away my disgust and anger.

It is imperative to make clear that America has nothing to fear from the dictators and thugs of the world. We will win the war of ideas, and the jidadists and their ideology will be relegated to the dustbin of history. But we must engage in this battle in order to win it decisively.

And so I am welcoming the Iranian President to the World Trade Center site. His trip will demonstrate two things.

First, not that America is weak and bows to the whims of despots, but that America is a free society, one where even people with odious and objectionable views are allowed to express them. This is a sign of our strength and a signal to the Arab world: it is only the weak and desperate who restrict free speech and free expression, who limit people’s movements, who jail political dissidents.

Second, another key American trait is redemption. If the Iranian President truly wants to turn a new page by honoring our dead, let that be a first step towards a greater reconciliation. Let him withdraw his support for Hezbollah and Hamas; let him stop his nuclear program.

It is unlikely that Ahmadinejad will do any of these things. More than likely he will try to use his trip as a propaganda ploy. If this is the path he chooses, he will fail.

The world will see clearly that it is America that stands by its principles; that it is America that practices freedom, and not just preaches it; that it is America that offered goodwill even to its enemies in the hopes that they would change their ways; that it was America that allowed the President of Iran onto the site of our greatest and freshest wound, only to have him disrespect us.

And let it be known to all that America’s goodwill is not infinite; that we do not take it lightly when people abuse our goodwill and pursue policies of death and chaos; that when America finally loses its patience and is forced to bring its full resources to bear on those who want to harm us and our friends, that America was on the side of justice and the side of freedom.

Thank you my fellow Americans and citizens of the world.

Next Week: More on the competing notions about diplomacy and how to treat rogue actors on the world stage.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Redeploying From Iraq Is Not Surrender

Jon Stewart, proving once again that his analysis is superior to mainstream news sources, noted a key contradiction in the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. While they cannot predict with any certainty what will happen in Iraq if U.S. troops remain, they can predict with precision what will happen if we leave: genocide, chaos, a regional conflagration, and the emboldening of al Qaeda.

This is noteworthy because it proves what critics of the current policy have been saying for some time: we have no coherent plan for stability in Iraq, and our only reason for staying is the prospect that things could get worse if we leave. In defense of Bush supporters you can’t really blame them for emphasizing the downside of leaving rather than the upside of staying; it’s their job after all to put the best spin on the Administration’s policy.

What this means, of course, is that the Iraq project has come down to a tremendous risk fraught with tremendous uncertainty. Nobody has much of a clue what is going to happen; withdrawing forces might create more of an incentive for the various sects to reach the political compromise that everyone realizes is the key to stability, or it might lead to greater partition and strife.

The problem is that while we manage the Iraq conflict and debate its merits, there are developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are extremely troubling and only getting worse (with 100% certainty). Iran is sending vast shipments of arms to the Taliban, who are growing in strength; in addition, as the recent National Intelligence Estimate noted, Al Qaeda is building a major new stronghold in the Warizistan Province of Pakistan.

It is inconceivable that six years after 9/11 we could be so myopic in our foreign policy that we would allow our greatest foes to regain their strength. Supporters of the Iraq War have never come to grips with the fact that our Iraq policy does not exist in a vacuum; there are very damaging opportunity costs associated with our level of commitment in Iraq, political, financial, and military.

It is time for the opponents of staying the course to make a forceful case that the resources being spent in Iraq, for uncertain aims far off in the future, could be much better utilized against the home base of those who attacked us on 9/11 and who have been behind most of the barely thwarted attacks in Europe. It is time to focus attention on the opportunity costs of the Iraq War, and show the American public that withdrawal does not mean isolation and retreat but rather a renewed focus on America’s deadliest enemies. This is the strategy that I would urge the Democratic presidential candidates to embrace; this is the strategy that will enable them to turn back the utterly false charge that they favor surrender and defeat.

Unfortunately, those who look towards the end of the Iraq War as the beginning of a major reduction in American military activity around the world are almost certainly going to be sorely disappointed.

President Bush has always been right about one thing: we must be on the offensive. The key is to fight the right enemies on the right battlefields, with clear objectives and a clear appreciation of our means for achieving those objectives. American power is not unlimited, nor is the patience of the American public.

Our power must be used wisely in ways that maximize national security. The current policy is only making us weaker as our true enemies regroup and prepare to strike.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Will The Democrats Get Blamed For Losing Iraq?

Many supporters of the Iraq War are already preparing to blame the Democrats for “losing” the war. For these supporters the primary lesson of Vietnam appears to be that we would’ve won if only we had “stayed the course”: this despite a decade of heavy fighting which killed 2-3 million Vietnamese, left a rural peasant economy drenched in napalm and Agent Orange, took more ordinance than was dropped in all of World War II and cost over 58,000 American lives plus hundreds of thousands wounded, most of whom were supplied via a draft that fell disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged.

This same reasoning is now being applied to Iraq. After almost five years of heavy fighting that shows no clear sign of abatement, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of American casualties*, we are once again being implored to remain steadfast and see the conflict through until we are “victorious”. And once again, as the narrative goes, the only obstacle to our eventual success are the Democrats, who want to draw down forces before the job is done.

I was born at the height of the Vietnam War. I’m too young to remember the political dynamics that played out in the seventies and eventually led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the supposed conservative ascendancy. Today many people suggest that the Democrats risk the same fate as they did 40 years ago, when their credibility on national security evaporated, if they force a withdrawal from Iraq and the situation gets even worse.

I do not think this scenario is likely to transpire, mainly because I do not think the parallels between the Vietnam era and today really hold up. The sixties were marked by enormous cultural changes (e.g., the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, increases in teenage drug use and sexual promiscuity) that came to be associated with the Democratic Party, and against which many Americans ultimately wearied of and rebelled against. It’s now 2007 and society has advanced dramatically; today it is the GOP’s perverse and hypocritical moralizing on social issues that is out of step with the rest of the country. In addition the only Democratic president in the seventies was Jimmy Carter, who was easily caricatured as a peacenik. Today all of the first and second tier potential Democratic presidential nominees have gone out of their way to portray themselves as tough on national security.

None of this is to suggest that the Democrats do not have their work cut out for them. Even if America elects a Democratic president in 2008, he or she will face the daunting and delicate task of somehow extricating the United States from Iraq and will have to take responsibility for the outcome. Given how badly the war has been managed I suspect that the American people will grant a Democratic president a great degree of leeway when things (as likely) become chaotic and messy. No one expects Iraq to become tranquil overnight or a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon.

It seems to me that Americans are more sophisticated and reasonable than the war’s major supporters, who talk of “victory” as if it were some abstract concept devoid of costs and benefits: as if “victory” were something that we could simply will into being if only we stick it out. The public understands that there are many pressing issues, both domestically and abroad, and that it is time that the Iraq War no longer be the primary focus of so much energy and national resources.

Unfortunately, our fates will be entangled with Iraq’s for a very long time, but I believe that Americans will cut the Democrats some slack even if things get worse before they get better.

As long as Democratic leaders offer a comprehensive vision of how to make America safer and more prosperous, and devote sufficient resources to the task, both political and financial, I think the political fallout of withdrawing from Iraq can be minimized.

*Total U.S. casualties are over 30,000: 3790 dead and 27,004 wounded.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

Last week I discussed the responsibilities that the United States has to the Iraqi people, to the U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq, and to U.S. national security interests. It would be easier to arrive at the optimal policy if a single course of action were consistent with meeting our obligations in all three of these areas; unfortunately, U.S. obligations in one sphere may weaken our ability to meet our obligations in another.

For example, if it is unfair to ask the U.S. military to police an Iraqi civil war, the withdrawal of American troops may make it harder to meet our obligations to the Iraqi people. Meeting our obligations to the Iraqis may also weaken our national security interests if this leads to a larger regional war or to a new failed state that acts as a terrorist training ground. The point is that there are no easy answers and it is quite possible that the American public and its political leaders will have to prioritize and choose which obligations are the most pressing.

Those in the realist school put U.S. national security interests above all else, while interestingly, many neoconservatives continue to stress our obligation to the Iraqi people and the U.S. servicemen and women who, in their view, are making progress.

While I share the view held by most on the Left, that this war was waged unnecessarily, I do not share the view that simply getting the troops out is by definition the right strategy. It all comes back to our obligations and how best to meet them in what is now essentially a lose-lose situation, or as Barack Obama has characterized it, choosing between bad and worse options.

With respect to our obligations to the Iraqi people it seems reasonable that, at minimum, we should be taking the actions laid out in this piece on Democracy Arsenal, which essentially boils down to increasing humanitarian aid and helping the millions of Iraqi refugees. Much of this can be done whether we stay in Iraq or not. I would add that we must also protect the Iraqis who have bravely worked side by side with us.

On the military front, it is becoming increasingly clear that our presence in Iraq is not in any way leading to the necessary Iraqi political reconciliation that is required for peace. We are likely helping to arm and train many of the death squads that are not only killing innocent Iraqis but our own troops. As Michael O’Hanlon (coauthor of a recent New York Times Op-Ed in which he called for a continued military presence) amazingly admitted on a recent NPR show, he has no theory whatsoever as to why the “surge” should produce a change in the political climate in Iraq; he said that it is only a hope. We should not ask our servicemen and women to remain in the line of fire for an elusive hope.

Therefore we must begin a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces, maintaining sufficient numbers to protect those Iraqis who have risked their lives working with us as well as to assist with humanitarian efforts. This view puts me squarely with those who argue for a residual force. As Senator Biden has said repeatedly, there is simply no way that we can withdraw all of our troops anytime soon given the thousands of Americans (e.g., private contractors, persons working for non-governmental organizations and embassy workers) who will remain in Iraq whether or not we have a full-scale military presence there.

With respect to our national security interests, the U.S. residual force must remain in Iraq long enough to root out the worst elements, mainly the foreign jihadists who are wreaking the most havoc and whose larger scheme is to destabilize the entire region and launch attacks on American interests around the world. This rooting out can be done with a much smaller force of elite units. For those who say that our drawdown will lead to the perception that America is weak, my reply is that U.S. foreign policy should never be held hostage to the views of fundamentalists maniacs. Their perceptions are irrelevant; it is our actions that are paramount.

With the majority of our troops out of Iraq, we will be able to rebuild our military and rededicate U.S. forces to Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qeada are resurgent. We will finally be able to finish the job which should have been finished years ago.

To quote Barack Obama, the key to regaining the upper hand is to focus on the “right battlefields”. By showing our enemies that we have regrouped not in retreat, but in order to more effectively target them and their strongholds, we will dash any misperceptions of American weakness.

Next week: how all of this may play out politically.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Our Obligations To Iraq

I opposed the Iraq war and have watched in horror and disgust as the Bush Administration’s criminal incompetence has resulted in thousands of lives needlessly lost, both American and Iraqi.

But what is done is done. We must focus our energies on where to go from here.

In my view we have three kinds of obligations to Iraq that we must now consider:

1. Obligations to the Iraqi people

Iraq was a frightening and repressive dictatorship before the war, but we have managed to make it appreciably worse with no end in sight to the bloodshed and misery. While at minimum tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict, more than two million Iraqis have fled the country and now live with few rights or opportunities in neighboring countries; and over two million more have been displaced within Iraq. The country’s economy is in a shambles and the out of control unemployment helps to swell the ranks of insurgents.

There is no question that we have a moral responsibility to assist the Iraqi people, and no doubt that establishing a stable and prosperous Iraq would be the best outcome we could pass on to them. But this remains a dream that may be decades away; at minimum we should assist Iraqi exiles and both create and maintain strong humanitarian efforts within the country.

While our obligations to the Iraq people are vast, we owe nothing to the various oppressive militant groups: the Shiite theocratic death squads, the hardcore Baathist nationalists, the PKK in Kurdistan. Instead we should seek to reduce the power of these rogue elements and bolster the prospects for a government that actually stands for the interests of all Iraqis.

2. Obligations to U.S. servicemen and women

Close to 4,000 U.S. military personnel have died and tens of thousands have been seriously wounded in Iraq, and they continue to be killed and wounded at an alarmingly high rate. America’s political leaders (and the voters who put them in office) owe those carrying on the fight a clearly defined strategy that effectively promotes American national security interests. They are not owed, nor have they ever asked, that America’s leaders stick to missions that are short, safe and uncomplicated. What is required is that the level of difficulty and risk must be in some sense proportional to the benefits to U.S. interests, which must be realistic and achievable.

This brings me to our third layer of obligation.

3. Obligations regarding U.S. national security

How our continuing presence in Iraq affects our national security is a complicated matter. On the downside we are putting an immense strain on the military and taking resources away from other volatile regions, most notably Afghanistan; our presence serves as a recruiting poster for jihadists, and we may be inadvertently strengthening Iran’s hand in Iraq since many Shiite parties that we are arming and training may be at least indirectly aligned with Iran. On the other hand, Al Qeada in Iraq is a serious force and we are having some success at weakening them in certain regions. In addition, any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that was viewed as an American defeat could also be used as a global rallying cry for jihadists.

So how do we balance these obligations, and what should we do to translate them into policy?

To be continued next week.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Blair, Bombs, And A Big Mistake

I’ve been in Europe during the changing of the guard at Downing Street and now comes the news of two large bombs discovered in cars in downtown London. Here are a few observations from across the Atlantic.

Many commentators believe that Tony Blair’s legacy will be forever tarnished because of his support for the Iraq War and perhaps more importantly, his unwavering support of President Bush. This may be true, but it would be unfortunate.

For all his faults, Blair is just the type of politician I wish we had in the United States. He is extremely articulate, fully embraces globalization, and is firmly committed to the enlightenment values that best define Western culture.

Under his watch Britain has prospered for the past decade. In addition, even though his legacy is most closely aligned with the future of Iraq, he actually helped to solve what seemed to be an even more intractable situation at home: reconciliation with Northern Ireland. After decades of conflict, including many terrorist attacks, Blair managed to achieve a peace which none before him had been able to do. This is a huge achievement that should help elevate his status as time goes on.

Europeans have been dealing with terrorism on their soil for a long time; as the bombs discovered this week demonstrate, the threat of terrorism is real and governments must remain vigilant.

But as a friend recently pointed out to me, virtually no one in Europe considers Islamists to represent an existential threat to the West. After two world wars and their own homegrown insurgencies, Europeans are not terrified of scattered bands of Islamists, many hiding out in caves, no matter how determined and hateful they are. Of all of the mistakes we have made in the past six years, to me none is greater than not recognizing this essential fact:

Terrorism only works if we allow ourselves to become terrorized.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

America The Ignorant?

I returned this week from a trip abroad during which I interacted with many Europeans. The experience made me ponder a nagging question: how do Americans stack up against our counterparts in Europe with respect to cultural awareness and knowledge of world affairs? While my sample size was relatively small and clearly biased, I think my conclusions could withstand a more rigorous analysis.

We Americans are truly less culturally knowledgeable than our European counterparts. Most Europeans speak at least two (often three plus) languages, travel extensively throughout the varied regions of Europe, and know far more than the average American about history and geography. While some of this is due to simple population densities and a first-class rail system, it is nonetheless fair to say that Americans are relatively ignorant compared to Europeans on the cultural front.

With respect to current world affairs, here too I think the Europeans have a significant edge. Their general level of knowledge regarding current conflicts, as well as the political situations in countries apart from their own, is more sophisticated than the average American. It is safe to say that almost nowhere in Europe would you encounter polls showing such widespread ignorance on important basic questions (for example whether Iraq had WMD or whether the scientific consensus is that humans are at least partially responsible for the greenhouse effect).

However, when it comes to important moral judgments and the interpretation of world events, Europeans can be just as myopic, shortsighted, and biased as the Americans they criticize.

Europeans have a very negative attitude towards America because of the Iraq War. They view America as a bumbling hegemon led by a tough-talking Texas cowboy poseur. Despite the (not insignificant) truth in these perceptions, Europeans are reluctant to admit the extent to which they rely on American power and the ways in which their Enlightenment values must sometimes rely on military might.

I asked some of those I encountered why no European power, such as France or Germany (especially Germany), had considered sending troops into the Sudan to stop the genocide, both for humanitarian reasons and to show the world that other powers besides America could be relied on to promote human rights in a meaningful way. My question was always met with lame excuses or silence. I mentioned American intervention in the Balkans, in which it was unilateral American power that stopped the ethnic cleansing by the Serbs. Again, crickets. Europe lives under an umbrella of American military security, but Europeans are more apt to criticize the size of the U.S. military budget than to acknowledge their reliance on it.

The world would be a better place if Americans moved closer to the European model with respect to cultural awareness: it would be great if we spoke more languages and could find Iraq on a map, all the while not shying away from our recognition that democracy and liberty must be backed by military power. (In my view Barack Obama, with his international experience and liberal global vision, comes closest to this ideal among the current presidential hopefuls.)

On the other hand, Europeans would do well to acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to back a commitment to liberal democracy and secularism with force; not all uses of military power are illegitimate and the result of imperialist design. Their hesitation to rely on military force is certainly welcome, but not their unrealistic and sometimes dangerous rejection of it in its entirety.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Essential Human Rights

I have often pointed out that democracy does not by itself lead to a respect for human rights and the development of institutions that lead to peace and stability. American democracy permitted domestic terrorism against blacks for well over a century; democracy in the Palestinian territories has increased the power of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and gives every indication that it wants conflict rather than coexistence.

So the question arises, what are the crucial rights (besides the right to cast a ballot every few years) that do lead to peaceful and cohesive societies? Obviously it is hard to present anything comprehensive here, but I would like to suggest three areas which I believe hold the key:

1. The protection of minority rights

As pointed out by many thinkers over the centuries, democracies can easily degenerate into “tyrannies of the majority” if there aren’t provisions that explicitly protect minority rights. This is abundantly clear in Iraq, where the majority Shiites are trying to wrest virtually all power and leave the Sunnis with next to none. Almost all societies have minority populations that have at one time or another been exploited, disenfranchised or abused, and this is often the source of on-going conflicts that destabilize society and may lead to larger regional conflicts.

2. Freedom of speech

We take this for granted in the West, but without the freedom to openly criticize the government and its policies, as well as one another within society, it is very easy for propaganda and misinformation to reign supreme. Freedom of speech is a prerequisite for a vibrant and robust civil society, which is the foundation of any modern democracy.

3. Freedom from arbitrary detention

This freedom is the natural extension of freedom of speech, in that the latter only has meaning if one can express views without fear of being rounded up and jailed by the government. The primary tool of fear by non-free states is their ability to detain people at will, often without charge, an ability which instills fear, distrust and uncertainty in the population.

Just as future administrations would be wise to rethink the “war on terror” and provide a more precise definition of what it is we are fighting, they might also want to move beyond the simple language of “promoting democracy” abroad and consider exactly what it is that leads to peace within and between societies, apart from holding elections.

I submit that these are three areas on which to focus attention: the protection of minority rights, freedom of speech and its hand-in-glove collateral, freedom from arbitrary detention.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

If The U.S. Won’t Lead, No One Will

I think it is safe to say that the invasion of Iraq is likely to go down as one of the worst foreign policy disasters in American history. As The Economist noted this past week, the Bush Administration’s negligence and incompetence in carrying out the invasion has bordered on the criminal.

At the same time I depart from many of the critics of the war in their reading of American motivations for the conflict. If Iraq didn’t have huge oil reserves we wouldn’t be there, but oil was not the primary reason for the invasion, nor were imperial ambitions or pressure from the Israeli lobby. I fault the administration for many things, but I do believe that their desire to bring democracy to the Middle East was genuine, even if misguided.

Regardless of the original motivation, U.S. moral legitimacy is now questioned in most parts of the world and U.S. standing is at all-time lows. Our military is over-stretched; while we can barely meet our ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, nevertheless we must continue to pressure Iran and North Korea.

At the same time, the genocide in Darfur continues unabated and there is almost no possibility that the U.S. military will get involved. Some point to this as U.S. hypocrisy; we were among the first to call the conflict genocide, but we have failed to act. While I would support U.S. involvement (this would meet the criteria for a “just war”), I think the critics have it exactly backwards.

If ever there was an opportunity for the other members of the world community to prove that they can act independently of the United States to address an issue of such magnitude, it is now in Darfur. Instead we get nothing but inaction and cowardice. The African Union won’t even criticize Mugabe as he cracks the skulls of his opponents. The Egyptian government won’t even work with the new Secretary General of the U.N. to pressure the Sudanese government; the Egyptians insist on more “dialogue” while women and children are slaughtered. And the Arab states? They have spent the past year on the U.N. Human Rights Commission criticizing Israel almost daily, but when it comes to Sudan (let alone their own human rights abuses) they are so quiet you can hear the crickets. As for the French and Germans, who in my view have a special obligation to prevent genocide, we also get nothing but talk.

Where does this leave us?

1. Whether we like or not the world is comprised of state actors who will rarely, if ever, put significant numbers of their troops on the line to intervene in humanitarian crises, even those of the magnitude of the Sudanese genocide.

2. People love to complain about the U.S., but whenever there are serious conflicts people look to America for leadership. Unless America gets involved other nations rarely do, unless it is in their immediate interests.

3. None of this is likely to change anytime soon.

So for those who crave a more humane international system, where evils such as genocide are not tolerated by the community of nations, our best bet may be to work to change the leadership in the United States. Until other nations prove that they can step up and meet some of these challenges on their own, we are left with the unfortunate conclusion that U.S. leadership, as imperfect as it is, is basically what we must rely on.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Give Soft Power A Chance

After years of studying differing views on foreign policy and national security, I think the primary difference between the left and the right’s positions can be succinctly summarized: the right believes in the superiority of hard power (military) and is suspicious of soft power (diplomacy, aid, cultural exchange, etc.), while the left holds the exact opposite view, believing in the merits of soft power and distrusting hard power.

Putting aside legitimate issues of when military force is warranted and just, the essential left-right divide should have an empirical component to it. Does hard power work better than soft power at making the U.S. safe, protecting our allies, spreading democracy, and furthering broader U.S. interests? Or does soft power? Maybe there is some optimal combination of both.

The first problem we encounter when trying to answer this question is that military confrontations are relatively rare and the circumstances surrounding each separate instance are unique. We don’t have a sizeable enough dataset with the necessary controls to test whether soft power or hard power is actually better at achieving the desired results (we also need to put aside for a moment how difficult it is to measure or define soft power).

But I think there is something even more fundamentally problematic with trying to answer this question: an emphasis on soft power has never been employed as the primary tool of U.S. foreign policy, and therefore, it is in some sense untested. Let me discuss two hypotheticals, one with respect to the Cold War and the other in regards to the current war on terrorism.

Vietnam won its war with America and is still today a Communist regime. But it has just entered the WTO and the U.S. is its biggest trading partner. One cannot help but wonder if carpet bombing the country with more ordnance than used in all of WW II, which resulted in the deaths of 2-3 million Vietnamese and over 55,000 Americans, was really necessary.

What if back in the 1950s America had made it clear to the world that we would eagerly embrace all nations that chose a path of democracy and economic liberalism? That we would extend trade privileges to them, help them build strong institutions, pay for thousands of their best and brightest to study in American universities and return home to build their countries? Could not that have achieved the outcome that we have arrived at today, but without all the bloodshed? If we had had more confidence that our way of life was superior, both in terms of personal freedoms and improving material standards of living, could that have been sufficient to win people’s hearts and minds?

Turning to the present, suppose that after 9/11 President Bush had told the world that once Afghanistan was rid of the Taliban and Al Qaeda the country would receive enough aid to significantly improve the standard of living for all Afghanis by the end of the decade. What if, instead of spending $1 trillion on the invasion of Iraq, the president had announced a massive program to wean the world off of oil and gas, both as a way to undercut financing for terrorists and the states that sponsor them and to make America a leader in combating global warming? What if the president had asked Congress to dedicate $100 billion to assistance for democracy building in the Middle East for all nations that reformed their institutions and improved their record on human rights, and extended special trading privileges to these countries as well?

Maybe both of these scenarios would have ended badly. Maybe Communism would have spread throughout Asia if we hadn’t intervened in Vietnam. Maybe the Islamic jihadists would have found other ways to undermine us even if we hadn’t gotten ourselves bogged down in Iraq.

The fact is we’ll never know because these alternatives were never tried. There is a bias in American politics for erring on the side of hard power, at least partly because there is nothing that Americans hate more than the perception of weakness.

Unfortunately, my intuition coupled with my reading of history tells me that this bias has led to a lot more wasted lives and treasure than necessary to achieve our goals. Maybe one day we’ll give soft power a chance and actually be able to test my theory.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Good And Evil In Iraq

The Iraq war has been a disaster; that much is certain. Although we lack the benefit of the historical counter-factual, it is likely that Iraq is worse now (and will be into the foreseeable future) than it would have been had the country continued under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Obviously, there are so many unknowns that speculation on what could have been is problematic.

What is inarguable is that U.S. interests would have been better served with a different set of policies. The war has already led to tens of thousands of American casualties and its steadily increasing price tag is likely to top a trillion dollars. It is no stretch of the imagination to envision ways in which our blood, treasure, and political capital could have been much better utilized for both our national and global interests.

But our errors and foibles, and even the atrocities of events such as Abu Ghraib, do not in any way suggest a moral equivalency between us and the people we are fighting.

The overwhelming majority of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq are doing their best to help improve the situation, to protect civilians, to build schools and hospitals, and to defeat those who are trying to plunge the country into the depths of an even more horrific civil war. Whatever one’s views on the war, it is important to recognize that American soldiers, almost to the last, are on the side of the good. Such simple black and white moral statements are often ridiculed here in America, especially by the left and sometimes for legitimate reason, but not in this case.

And just as most of the U.S. military is currently engaged in good works, the foes we are fighting are truly evil. I do not use such a phrase lightly. I reserve it for those who go out of their way to maximize civilian casualties: teenage girls at a university, men waiting for jobs, regular people pulled into a gas station. I reserve it for inhuman human beings who drill holes in people’s heads and dump their bodies on the streets, who assassinate people who dare to register voters.

I make these statements because sometimes I get the sense that many Americans see the chaos in Iraq, much of which we have helped to create, and assume that our position is morally compromised or corrupt. Even in an unnecessary and incompetently waged war such as this, there still exist clear moral lines that deserve to be respected by everyone: regardless of their views on the war’s ultimate legitimacy, regardless of their views on the men who launched it. I think this is important not because of any American exceptionalism, or any feeling that we are always on the side of the good, but because it corrupts our own morals if we fail to distinguish between motivations that are just and those that are contemptible.

Unfortunately in this war our policies may have actually helped to unleash some of the most brutal forces in a society already brutalized by decades of dictatorship. It is our responsibility now to extricate ourselves in a way that allows us to provide humanitarian relief and minimize the crisis, while also maintaining our right to strike any Al Qaeda cells that take root.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Positive Developments In The Middle East?

At the end of a week punctuated by one of the most horrific bombings in Iraq, which killed dozens of Iraqi university students, and the loss of 25 U.S. soldiers in a single day, it may seem strange to note some positive developments in the Middle East.

Before I get to those, I ask anyone with a more pacifist bent to take a moment and recognize that we are dealing with seriously evil people who will not magically go away when we finally leave Iraq. Whatever one thinks about the invasion, the people we are fighting are as depraved as they come. Responsible opponents of the war have always recognized this. They have tirelessly argued that we must wage a smart and measured campaign against Islamic extremists in order to avoid creating just the type of power vacuum and massive recruiting opportunities that, in fact, we have created in Iraq.

On to the positive developments of the week:

1. Iraq

The Iraqi government appears to have reached a deal on oil-revenue sharing, with all Iraqis getting equal shares doled out by the central government. As I and many others have noted, putting aside sectarian issues, the fighting in Iraq is mainly over power and money, with oil at the center. If the parties agree on a revenue-sharing plan and it holds, this could be huge.

Iraqi troops, along with U.S. forces, have also arrested a main aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, along with hundreds of his associates. It is too early to tell whether this will be part of a sustained campaign to rein in the Mahdi Army, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. There are rumors that al-Sadr is simply telling his people to lay low during the surge and wait out the Americans; we will see.

2. Iran

It appears that the combined effects of the U.N. resolution against Iran, Iran’s lagging economic performance, the United States’s decision to move another aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf to demonstrate that America still has plenty of military capability, along with the crackdown on Iranian factions within Iraq, has seriously weakened Ahmadinejad’s standing both among his people and with Iran’s ruling council. There are even rumors that some Iranians want to strike a deal with the U.S. and are trying to ratchet down Iran’s nuclear program. As one who has long pointed out the extent to which the Iraq War has strengthened Iran, this is a very positive development. Our best hope has always been that regime change in Iran comes peacefully from within.

3. Lebanon

Hezbollah has been waging massive protests for the last couple of months in an attempt to bring down the Lebanese government. The government hasn’t budged and it appears that many of the Lebanese people, tired of the gridlock and the fighting, are turning against Hezbollah. This would be a great victory for the democratically-elected government that was badly damaged during the Israeli war last summer.

4. Palestine

There are encouraging signs that the Palestinians would like to initiate a new round of peace talks. The Israel government has released $100 million it owes to the Palestinian Authority and has agreed to rescind the creation of a proposed new settlement in the West Bank, in order to support Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, both of which are moderate relative to Hamas and recognize Israel’s right to exist. This seems like a wise move that should pay dividends.

Do these developments signify a trend towards moderation and less violence? It’s too early to tell, but given the backward slide of 2006, the new year is off to a promising start on the political front. Let us hope that a sustainable peace can be achieved.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The War Supporters' Last Chance

President Bush is right about one thing: the Iraq War is the central issue facing America. It is arguably one of the worst foreign policy mistakes in American history, both strategically and morally.

I have listened to and read dozens of hours of interviews with generals, other military experts, commentators, soldiers, and Congressmen and women, and there is no consensus on how best to extricate ourselves from this terrible situation. While most believe that Bush’s planned escalation will not work, there are credible people, including the new commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, who believe that it has a reasonable chance of success.

The more I learn about the Iraq War, the more I realize how complicated Middle Eastern politics is. I do not say this to deflect blame on the Iraqis or to chalk up our failures simply to cultural differences; I say it to recognize the swirl of forces that the war has turned loose, and to recognize how essentially impossible it is to predict what might happen as all these forces interact and the situation finally plays out.

This is why, at the end of the day, facts must trump faith.

Virtually every single judgment made by the proponents of the war has been wrong since before the war even started. Looking back, the Bush Administration and their neocon supporters appear completely delusional, with Cheney, who just this November called Rumsfeld the “greatest Defense Secretary in American history”, at the top of the list.

The Administration has had a blank check to wage the war exactly as it wanted since the war’s inception. It had a “rubber stamp” Congress that didn’t even bother to conduct oversight. Even now, with Congressional control passing to the Democrats, the President’s new plan is almost exactly what the neocons have been calling for. It is essentially the same old strategy with an additional 20,000 troops, along with some reshuffling of duties, mixed with vague commitments to demand more from the Iraqi government. Even so, and as I have said, there are credible people who think the plan has a chance of working.

Fine. This is their last chance.

Faith and rhetoric do not equal victory. Only results do. If the president wants to run out his term hoping that his strategy will finally work, he will likely have the ability to do so, regardless of Congressional opposition. And just as he will deserve credit for victory, he must be held accountable for defeat.

Some take a longer-term view and see the Iraq War as part of a generational struggle. They are not so concerned with whether we win now or in 10 years, and they cite our decades-long military commitments in Europe and Asia. This seems to me the height of irresponsibility and historical blindness.

The longest large-scale military commitment in U.S. history was our eight years in Vietnam from 1965-1973, during which we had a draft. The Iraq War currently stands as the second longest U.S. war. While we still have troops stationed in Asia and Europe, they are not the daily targets of snipers and IED’s; the American military is simply not equipped for such intense long-term engagements. Just this week the military dramatically increased tours of duty; men and women will now be called on to serve two continuous years in Iraq without coming home, and then can be called back again for long tours. This is the first time in our history that we have engaged in a conflict in which the costs have so disproportionately fallen on a small number of our volunteer forces; at the same time as we have called on them to do more and more, we have enacted record tax cuts for the rich. It is simply unsustainable, morally, politically, and militarily.

Of course, those who insist that we could “win” in Iraq if we really wanted to are in some sense correct. Maybe it would take 15, 20, 25 years, but if we committed the necessary resources we could probably stabilize the country. But we could say the same thing about any country, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Such a claim is both vacuous and morally corrupt; war must be weighed against both the direct costs in lives, suffering and treasure, and the opportunity costs. War is not simply a pit into which one keeps throwing money and lives in the hope of some vague future benefits.

In the end, I hope President Bush is right. I hope Iraq in another year is on its way to stability and peace. I hope the Islamic extremists are defeated. But the time is up for hope. Either it happens or we have to get out of there and deal with the consequences. (One cannot fail to wonder why, if Bush truly believes that the Iraq conflict is so central to U.S. interests, he has prosecuted the war so badly and committed relatively little troops for the past four years.)

I reject the notion that if we leave Iraq before the country is completely stable and all of the extremists defeated, that this will be catastrophic. Again, there are many unknowns. The Shiite majority is unlikely to tolerate a large Sunni Al Queada presence and we will surely keep troops in the area to destroy any terrorist training camps that take root. With respect to humanitarian concerns, there is a lot we could do to rescue the Iraqi civilians and provide humanitarian relief; it is not as if the current policy, in which millions have been displaced and hundreds of thousands butchered, is providing much benefit to the Iraqi civilians anyway. There are other problems in the world that require our attention, and the open-ended nature of our commitment has so far not inclined the Iraqis to make the compromises they need to end the civil war.

P.S. Here's the President's take: Check it out.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Democrats' Dilemma

This past week was historic: the first woman Speaker of the House, a minority member for House majority whip, the first Muslim Congressman (sworn in using Thomas Jefferson’s personal Koran no less, a move that could not have been more brilliant), and only the second black governor in U.S. history. What all of these public officials have in common is that they are Democrats. While the GOP talks diversity, it is the Democratic Party that best mirrors the true diversity in American society.

Not only did the Democrats pass meaningful (though by no means comprehensive) ethics reform on their first day in charge, but their “first 100 hours” agenda consists of popular, common sense measures that will surely increase Congress’s approval rating. Democratic proposals include an increase in the federal minimum wage, federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and allowing the Government to negotiate prices for prescription drugs under Medicare.

All of this portends good news for the Democratic Party, which, despite all of the nonsense we have heard over the past years about Karl Rove’s genius, is poised to become the dominant majority party for the coming decades; the GOP, meanwhile, is shrinking into a Southern regional party powered mostly by religious fanatics and racists.

But on the biggest issue of the day - the Iraq War - the Democrats will soon face a huge dilemma: to what extent should they oppose Bush’s escalation of the conflict?

This week the president is expected to announce an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq. He has already shuffled the generals and intelligence officials in charge and brought in those who are more predisposed to an escalation. For all of the promises of a “new strategy,” what is likely to unfold is more of the same: adding more blood and treasure to a failed policy. The spectacle of Saddam’s execution should have been the final straw to convince the American people that supporting the Iraqi government is not the key to “victory”; it is a government that is in league with Moktada al-Sadr and the Shiite extremists. We are well past the time when military force could succeed in Iraq, and the insurgents can always wait out our troops since they know we have to leave sooner or later. Only when Iraqi leaders agree to real compromise will there be any semblance of stability, and this has little to do with whether we have another 20,000 boots on the ground.

All of this puts the Democrats in a quandary. They know that Bush’s plan will cost many more American and Iraqi lives. They know that the mess will be left in the lap of whoever takes over the White House in 2008, likely a Democrat. They know that their constituents want them to oppose Bush and insist on bringing the troops home.

But Bush is the commander in chief and has the power to wage war. Pelosi and Reid sent the President a strongly worded letter urging him not to escalate the war, and they can hold hearings to expose its futility. But the only way the Democrats can bring the war to a stop is by moving to cut off funding, which carries huge political risks. It could easily result in a huge backlash against the Democrats, and provide an opportunity for Republicans to blame Democrats for our eventual defeat.

So what to do?

Twice in the past I have insisted that the American people voted for Bush and therefore, he should be given the benefit of the doubt to carry out the foreign policy he believes in. I have made the case that this is his war and he should fight it his way to its conclusion. I am fully aware of the moral dilemma this poses, even while Iraq grows more dangerous and costly by the day. But I essentially think this is how the Democrats should proceed. They should make it clear that they strongly oppose his policy, hold him accountable for it, but not threaten to withdraw funding. They might have the middle-ground option to authorize funding for continued operations but not for additional troops, but this would get tricky: almost certainly Bush would find a way to escalate the conflict, which would put the Democrats in an even greater bind.

In conclusion, this is a terrible situation with no good outcome. Elections have consequences. When the American people voted for Bush in 2004, after he had displayed incompetence and hubris and showed that he was out of touch with reality, they made an error that America, Iraq and the whole world continue to pay for. Democrats will not be able to remedy the situation until 2008 at the earliest, when they get a chance to restore sanity to the White House.

P.S. It seems as if Pelosi just this morning suggested that the Democrats will try to take the "middle way"; fund current troops but not additional ones without sufficient "justification". This is going to get really interesting really fast.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

My New Year's Wish

As 2006 ends I am both nervous and hopeful about the prospects for 2007. Nothing better encapsulates why I feel this mix of emotions than Tony Blair’s recent essay in Foreign Affairs, which I wish everyone would read carefully.

The first thing that struck me is how articulate Mr. Blair is. He has always been the superior spokesman for the ideological worldview that underlies his support for the Iraq War and the “global war on terrorism”.

So what are Blair’s main points?

1. The attacks of 9/11 were the product of a growing global ideology of radical Islam, not simply the work of a few isolated madmen.

2. We are not in the midst of a “clash of civilizations”, but in a struggle for civilization itself.

3. Islam itself is not the problem; in fact Islam has many elements that are eminently reasonable and progressive.

4. Poverty is not the root of the problem, and the problem will not go away if we withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

5. The ideology of radical Islam must be confronted everywhere.

6. We must support those in Iraq and Afghanistan who stand for democracy regardless of whether or not the war was justified.

7. The ultimate struggle is for modernity and global liberal values. These are much more than just security, and include new multilateral trade deals, protecting human rights, and fighting climate change.

Let me begin with what I find hopeful about this message. Mr. Blair is one of the liberalism’s wisest defenders of the past decade. He gets the big picture. He understands that you can’t promote democracy and then torture people, that the Doha Round of the WTO is as important for beating terrorists as expanding democracy, that America must take the lead on environmental issues that have potentially huge security implications. Put simply: Mr. Blair is one of the champions of enlightenment values and we owe him great respect.

But with respect to his perception of the “enemy” and how to combat the forces of radicalism, I do not think the facts support Mr. Blair’s worldview.

Let us start with Iraq. Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. While it is certainly true that there are elements in Iraq who want to see democracy fail in order to establish a Taliban-like state, most of the conflict is motivated by the oldest reason in the world: power. The Sunnis are afraid of being disenfranchised and the Shiites want to take full control; there is nothing particularly ideological about it at all, and the jihadists are only a small part.

While supporters of the war continue to put their faith in the Iraqi government, it is becoming increasingly hard to tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys; some of the worst elements in Iraq, notably Al Sadr, are part of the democratically-elected government. In addition, it is reasonable to assume that once we leave Iraq Al Qeada will be weakened, not strengthened, because many powerful groups in Iraq view them as enemies and are already engaged in fighting them, while our presence serves as a recruiting tool for the jihadists.

We also should not let Mr. Blair off the hook about the original motivation for the war. He says that radical Islam should be combated everywhere. I agree, which is exactly why attacking a weak non-threatening secular regime was a bad idea.

Finally, Mr. Blair is surely aware that the radicals who killed more than 50 British citizens in bus and train bombings were themselves British citizens, as are the majority of the 1,600 Muslims in Britain who are currently under heavy surveillance. The murder of Theo Van Gogh in Holland was committed by a Dutch middle class citizen. Bin Laden and his affiliates are mostly middle class and Western-educated. And where is their support coming from? Primarily Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. While the threat of terrorism might not go away if we left Iraq, there is little doubt that these men have been further radicalized by the invasion and occupation.

In summary, when I listen to people like Mr. Blair I am hopeful because of their strong and unwavering commitment to liberal values. Philosophically I agree as well with the neocons, who also believe strongly in freedom and democracy. I believe that American power can and should be a force for good in the world (e.g., personally I wish that America would unilaterally invade Sudan and crush the perpetrators of the Sudanese genocide).

But I diverge with Blair on tactics and strategy. As I have said many times, democracy is not a precondition for peace and liberal values. Democracy can bring people like Al Sadr or Hamas to power. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan it would likely bring Al Qaeda to power.

The war against Islamic radicals is much more a long-term ideological struggle than it is a military one. As to the practical matter of defeating and deterring the individuals who are actively seeking to do us harm, it seems increasingly obvious that this is best done through intelligence gathering and global law enforcement efforts, not by the crude use of military force.

That people as smart as Mr. Blair don’t seem to get this, even after these past four years, is what makes me worry.

P.S. A few comments on Saddam’s execution: 1. Read the description of what happened at the execution and it will make you sick to your stomach; Saddam’s executioners prayed to Al Sadr, whose militia the Defense Department has recently indicated is the #1 threat in Iraq (yes, greater than Al Qeada). 2. The whole affair in Iraq is becoming a sicker and sicker travesty by the day, and this banana-republic show trial is just one more page in a downward spiral. 3. None of this is to suggest that I am sad that Saddam is dead; I am sad that the greatest nation on earth is so morally adrift that “victory”, no matter how elusive, has become a hollow term.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

You Say You Want A Revolution (In The Middle East)?

Well, you know, maybe that requires understanding the Middle East a little first. But even a little understanding seems like too much to ask from our elected representatives.

Investigative reporter Jeff Stein has been going around the nation’s capital for the last few months quizzing our politicians on Middle East Basics 101. And guess what, they’re failing miserably. Incoming Intelligence Chairman Reyes didn’t even know that Al Qaeda is a predominantly Sunni group, not predominantly Shiite (and remember the odds were 50-50 he’d guess right.)

This should give all of us pause, but especially those neocons who advocate overthrowing regimes throughout the Middle East by force. It is not only crazy to entrust these people with such radical missions, it is also immoral.

Reasonable people can disagree on the original rationale for the Iraq War (although I don’t think there can be reasonable disagreement that it has turned out to be a failure), but I think everyone can agree that a prerequisite for a policy as radical as preventive war is at least understanding the people you’re warring with. It’s not too much to ask our leaders that if they want to invade a country and initiate a radical transformation of the Middle East that they have a solid understanding of the history, culture, and politics of the region.

I fear that instead America’s worst instincts have been at work. After 9/11 we needed to lash out at an enemy and we believed that somehow a massive show of force in Iraq would initiate a new Middle Eastern reality. It turns out that this thinking was grounded more in our delusions than in solid analysis. We continue to use broad brush strokes to categorize people who are divided along many religious, cultural, ethnic, and political lines. We have further united our enemies against us and divided our allies. We have disempowered the Baathists and empowered Iran. In short, we have set in motion forces that were in some sense predictable if they had been grounded in an understanding of who we were dealing with—but they weren’t.

Hopefully, this should serve as a serious warning to all of those interested in an aggressive foreign policy. Just as classic liberal economists showed us why in many instances government intervention to solve domestic problems may do more harm than good, the same applies for foreign policy. I am not advocating isolationism, only stating what should now be obvious: our leaders should focus on protecting America and weakening its enemies, not on grand utopian visions of radical transformation brought about by military force.

P.S. Coincidentally, this Sunday's NYT has a short "refresher course" on Middle Eastern basics that is worth reading.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Clarifying Freedom

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Yet it more than anything defines liberal democracies, and differentiates us from many of the “un-free” Muslim and Arab societies with which we are at odds.

Throughout Western Europe, which is experiencing an influx of largely unassimilated Muslims, there is the perception that some freedoms need to be curtailed in order to ensure that Muslim immigrants conform to European norms. In the Netherlands the Dutch have just passed a law banning the burqa and other types of Muslim clothing, and France has already banned the Muslim headscarves in schools. (In one of the biggest infringements of free speech in a liberal democracy, the Austrians have made it a crime to deny the Holocaust.)

While some of these laws are understandable from the standpoint of a people worried that its cultures and traditions are slowly being eroded by a foreign illiberal wave, they are largely misguided. What is needed is a careful clarification of what freedom means in the context of liberal democracies, including which ones are non-negotiable and which are more fungible. Tony Blair has begun to lay out such guidelines, making a point of which aspects of liberal democratic society in Britain all immigrants must respect if they are to be welcomed.

The bedrock principles of liberal democracies are equal rights for all, including women and minorities. Also, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from unlawful persecution, and freedom of association. The Western powers should go out of their way to make clear to the Muslims and Arabs who live in their societies that these elements are non-negotiable for all members of society; that where these principles conflict with Islamic principles, it is the principles of freedom that win out. The tenets of no religion or culture can supersede these basic freedoms.

At the same time it should also be made clear that all aspects of a person’s culture and way of life that do not conflict with these basic freedoms are left entirely up to them. If women freely chose to wear burqas or headscarves, fine; it is only when they are coerced that it is wrong. People are free to celebrate whatever holidays they want, and to practice their religion openly and freely; the West welcomes new cultures with open arms. (Keeping in mind of course that limits on freedom of speech and association for those who incite violence have always been a part of liberal democracies, and are not aimed at Muslims or Arabs).

In summary, there are fundamental rights that must be honored by everyone in a liberal democracy, and these need to continually be repeated and reinforced. However, members of other cultures should not be made to feel that all aspects of their cultures are under attack by the West.

Putting this in the context of American society, where we have been much more successful at assimilating minority religious and cultural groups, it is the U.S. Constitution that lays down these liberal democratic principles while it paves the way for an ever-evolving American culture. Those who argue that we are a Christian nation are wrong; we are a constitutional democracy that does not draw whatsoever on Christianity for its structure. However, it is correct that America’s cultural mores have predominantly been of the Judeo-Christian variety, including our holidays, slogans, and dominant religion. This can and likely will change. As the makeup of the American population changes so will our culture; we will further integrate the Hispanic and Muslim cultures, all the while maintaining our constitutional tradition.

A side note: It is ironic that demagogues such as the rightwing radio host Dennis Prager, who confuse and obscure the difference between our liberal democratic legal foundations and our cultural history, advocate contradicting our legal statutes in order to promote a narrow view of American culture. Prager caused a stir when he recently said that the new Muslim Congressman-elect must take his oath of office on a Bible and not a Koran. In reality, our legal tradition requires neither, nothing more than one’s right hand held in the air, and the Congressman has every right to choose to use a Koran for symbolic purposes as a representation of his culture. Prager’s insistence demonstrates that the right wing only believes in freedom of religion when it is Judeo-Christian religion; it is quick to call for unconstitutional rules, which infringe on religious freedom, when other religions seek a place within American culture. (The American Family Association is lobbying for a new law that requires swearing on the Bible for public office.)

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 3, 2006

It Is All About Sex Part #2

As if on cue, this week’s New York Times Magazine has a feature article on the increased repression of gays in many Arab and Muslim countries. Many of the details are harrowing: men being beaten, tortured, and blacklisted for nothing other than their sexual orientation. Perhaps even more disturbing is that one of the reasons given for this rise in anti-gay oppression is that tolerance towards gays is associated with “Western” culture, which many in the Arab and Muslim world violently reject.

A number of points which this article brings to mind are worth emphasizing:

1. Islamic fundamentalists do hate our freedoms

President Bush has often stated that we have been targeted by Al Queda and other Muslim radicals because they hate our freedom. Many have ridiculed the president for this simplistic notion, and correctly pointed out that many jihadists state clear political goals that are only marginally related to what America does or does not stand for. But there is still considerable truth to what the president says: Muslim fundamentalists despise a culture that allows what it perceives as hedonistic and lustful behavior in the name of freedom. The Taliban is the closest we have to the ideal world of Muslim extremists, and it is so authoritarian and repressive that everything from music to dancing to kite flying is prohibited, let alone displays of sexual desire.

2. The Christian Right has much in common with Muslim fundamentalists

Only on what are considered fringe leftwing blogs is this point ever mentioned, but it simply cannot be denied. While the Christian Right’s ideal America would never go as far as the Taliban, it shares many viewpoints, not the least of which is the disdain for and hatred of homosexuals. This is impolitic to say, but it needs to be said.

It also relates directly to what has always been one of my greatest criticisms of the Bush Administration, and why I do not think it has moral legitimacy. At the same time as the Administration has been fighting Islamic fundamentalists overseas, it has been busy empowering Christian fundamentalists at home. While I would never have supported the Iraq War (because I thought it was simply bad foreign policy), I would have at least believed that Bush was sincere if he had used his political capital from 9/11 to argue for a more inclusive and less fundamentalist vision of America. Instead we have the worst of both worlds: a terribly articulated and executed foreign policy and a radical fundamentalist agenda at home.

3. The struggle is for human rights above all

As I have argued in earlier pieces, while democracy is a worthy and noble goal and essential to any long-term peace in the Middle East, the global struggle we face is more about human rights than it is about democracy. Due to many factors, not the least of which is the insecurity and rapid change brought about by globalization, we are experiencing a reactionary moment in history when people of all stripes yearn for a fictional ‘golden age’ that is characterized by what they perceive as more stability. Invariably, however, what comes with this stability is less freedom and fewer human rights. The only way to combat this is to argue for and support universal human rights on all fronts and at all times.

Whether a gay man is beaten and killed in America or executed on the streets of the Iran, at bottom it is the same oppression with the same underlying motive. Until we see all these acts as part of the same larger struggle, our efforts will be only partial and largely unsuccessful.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

It Is All About Sex

I have come to believe that the root of fundamentalism (which has spawned some of the most virulently anti-liberal and violent behavior in the world) is a dysfunctional view of sexuality. I know it seems extreme to boil one of the great geopolitical struggles down to this level, but I think the facts bear this out.

Let us begin at home. The most recent gay sex scandal involving the now-disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard has opened a window into a world that tens of millions of Americans belong to that most of us who live in cities, especially liberal ones, have no connection with. In this world, sexual purity, defined as no sexual experience outside of heterosexual marriage, is viewed as the ultimate virtuous behavior. Not only is homosexuality viewed as a temptation by the devil, but premarital sex and even masturbation are viewed as abhorrent in the eyes of God. Best-selling books by evangelical authors are dedicated to fighting the “evil urge” to masturbate and men with homosexual tendencies are “cured” through shock therapy. What is perhaps most sad and disturbing about this latest episode is that Mr. Haggard is so full of self-loathing for his homosexual behavior that he has committed himself to healing by none other than one of the most anti-gay bigots in the country, James Dobson of the Family Research Council (who recently said that he is too busy to counsel Ted). Mr. Haggard goes so far to deny that homosexuality even exists.

The obsession with sexuality has spilled over into the virulent anti-gay activity of many on the Christian Right and is also intimately linked with their campaigns against sex education. In addition, much of their case against abortion rests on the view that sex is strictly for procreation and nothing more. To an outsider like myself, the more I learn about the inner workings of the Christian Right, the more I realize what an unhealthy and combustible mix it is. It has established a movement with an almost singular focus on sexuality, while at the same time creating conditions in which sexual confusion and frustration thrive. By denying the genetic nature of homosexuality and associating virtually all sexual desire with shame, the Christian Right creates mandates that lead to profound cognitive dissonance. It then funnels the frustration people feel when they can’t live up to these impossible and unrealistic ideals against liberals, gays, lesbians, and Hollywood (recall, Jerry Falwell blamed the attacks of 9/11 on just these groups.)

At the other end of the spectrum, halfway across the world, we have the Muslim fundamentalists, who blow themselves up believing that they are going to be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins. If there is anything more obviously driven by sexual dysfunction I don’t know what it is. Because of the disempowerment and distrust of women throughout much of the Arab and Muslim world, many Muslim men experience their first sexual relations with other men (and yet, in six Muslim countries homosexual acts are punishable by death). This too leads to extreme forms of shame and self-loathing. The belief that men are unable to control their wicked sexual impulses is so strong that a Muslim cleric in Australia just went on record saying that women who don’t cover themselves deserve to be raped because they have tempted men (and he is just one of many). The entire cultural phenomenon of covered women is little more than a means to control sexual impulses and achieve some unattainable and unhealthy version of sexual purity.

While I do not have statistics to back me up, I can say with some confidence that people who are comfortable with their sexuality are some of the most contented people in the world, while those who are sexually conflicted and frustrated are among the least contented. I believe this level of contentment is inversely correlated with many antisocial behaviors, including violent aggression, the need to scapegoat vulnerable groups, and the need to force others to conform to one’s own view of reality.

Where this all leads I am not sure. I do not want to downplay the problems that some people encounter when they engage in sex with numerous partners, including sexually-transmitted diseases. Nor do I want to discount the needs of children, who require loving and committed parents.

How to strike a balance between sexual freedom and acceptance of non-traditional views of sexuality with a commitment to strong relationships and family is difficult. But there is no doubt in my mind that fundamentalism at its core is driven by sexual dysfunction and that until this issue is approached head-on we can look forward to more gay-bashing, violence against women, and suicide bombers. If there really is a clash of civilizations it is between the fundamentalists and liberal society, and the most potent issue that separates these two groups is their views towards sex.

P.S. Someone read my piece and forwarded me a link to one of Bill Maher's rants that's too good to pass up. Check it out- it's hilarious and on the money!

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

A War Without End

Last year some of the top military commanders in charge of Guantanamo prison came to Monterey to brief the community on conditions at the prison and the government’s policy towards detainees (An Air Force brigadier general named Hemingway, a Naval rear admiral, and an Air Force colonel). This was part of a larger campaign to address the public’s growing unease with an unjust system that was weakening America’s credibility in the world.

During the Q&A I asked the brigadier general how we could claim war powers to hold people without charge when the “war on terror” was so ill-defined and could perhaps go on indefinitely. The general responded that this was a serious question that had yet to be addressed, but which needed to be. He said that terrorism posed a new threat that required new definitions and that the government still hadn’t fully grappled with this issue.

A year later, and five years since 9/11, we still don’t have a clear definition of what this conflict is, and what defines success. The new detainee bill that recently passed in Congress strips Guantanamo prisoners of the right of Habeas Corpus and puts them in an indefinite legal limbo.

That we are this long into the struggle and still have not come up with a sensible definition of the conflict is a disgrace to our American system and the rule of law. By this time into WW I and WW II we had prosecuted the wars and declared victory, yet today we don’t even know what “victory” means. This wouldn’t be so terrible is it weren’t for the immense extensions of executive power and the diminishment of civil liberties that have accompanied this struggle, which we are routinely told will take generations.

The contradictions of our current policy were no more evident than in a recent NPR interview with John Yoo, the primary architect of the Bush Administration’s legal strategy in the post-9/11 period. While Yoo makes a persuasive case that presidents have always had the power to hold people indefinitely who are caught on the battlefield, when pressed to say how long that power can reasonably last he reiterated what the general said last year: we don’t know since we haven’t defined victory.

But Yoo made an additional statement that demonstrated the Administration’s lack of seriousness on the definitional issue, and contradicted President Bush as well. Yoo said that perhaps a good metric for defining the end of the conflict would be when most of Al Qaeda’s top leaders are captured or killed. While this sounds reasonable, it directly contradicts Bush’s own contention that the war is much broader then Al Qaeda. Also notably absent from Yoo’s remarks was how the Iraq conflict relates to his definition, since none of the major Al Qaeda figures are in Iraq. If Yoo and the President can’t agree, it seems clear that the Administration is not really serious about defining the “war on terror”.

This should come as no surprise.

The Bush Administration does not want to define the war because then it would have to justify an entire set of policies that have specious connections to the true terrorist threats, and it would also by definition constrain its own power. The result is that we are stuck with an Orwellian “war without end” in which presidential power is virtually unchecked and anything the president deems a threat can be lumped under the general heading of the “war on terror”.

My guess is that Bush will leave office without ever articulating a definition of success in the “war on terror”. We will still have hundreds of alleged terrorists in U.S. custody, many of whom were grabbed in large sweeps and are likely not terrorists, and who will not get the chance to contest the charges against them. Recall, these are the same prisoners that are constantly referred to by Bush as “some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists”, when in fact they are alleged terrorists since little evidence has ever been brought against most of them. This is precisely why we need the checks and balances and judicial oversight that this Administration has constantly tried to supersede. (What is worse is how they have cynically implied that anyone who questions their policies is abetting the terrorists.)

It will be up to the next president to clarify this struggle and restore our system of civil rights and checks and balances (There are signs that the Democratic Congress may begin work on this). We can argue all we want about the fine points of presidential power (and reasonable people of differing political persuasions can disagree), but it is unarguable that the Founders did not intend presidential war time powers to last for decades within the confines of an ill-defined struggle. That is simply un-American.


P.S. Don't forget to check the headlines for the latest news and commentary.

Jason Scorse

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November 5, 2006

If We Knew What We Know Now

On “Meet the Press” Tim Russert has asked every Congressman who voted for the Iraq war resolution whether knowing what we know now, if they would still have voted for it. Almost without fail all of the Congressmen equivocate and dodge the question, often saying things like “the past is the past”.

This is crazy.

I propose that the litmus test for people who want to be taken seriously on issues of national security from here on out is that they should answer unambiguously “no, of course not” to this question. Anyone who doesn’t take this stand clearly suffers from an inability to conduct rational calculus and exercise reasonable judgment.

Here’s a partial list of the things we know now three and a half years out:

1. Iraq had no WMD and was essentially contained

2. Iran has been one of the major beneficiaries of the Iraq conflict and is continuing with its nuclear weapons program unabated

3. At minimum almost 3,000 U.S. men and women have been killed and more than 20,000 seriously injured

4. The costs of the war are nearly 400 billion and rising, with estimated costs of at least 1 trillion when future medical costs for veterans is included

5. Iraq has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists around the world and increased the threats of terrorism

6. At minimum tens of thousands of Iraq civilians have been killed (with numbers perhaps as high as many hundreds of thousands)

7. The provision of basic services in Iraq, such as electricity, water, sewage, and oil production are now lower than under Saddam’s rule (making everyday life worse)

8. Iraq is in the grip of a terrible civil war and on the verge of complete collapse

9. The Iraqi government has sided with Shiite extremists, in league with death squads, and has praised Hezbollah

10. The U.S. military is stretched thin with many servicemen and women serving their third and forth tours

12. Episodes of abuse, such as at Abu Ghraib have helped to lower the U.S. image abroad to historic lows

12. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan because we don’t have sufficient resources in that country

13. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have displayed criminal incompetence at every turn and didn’t even begin plans for “winning the peace” until two months before the invasion

And the list goes on and on….

Anyone you still clings to the notion that perhaps this will all turn out well is simply in a state of denial or incapable of updating their prior beliefs based on new information.

There are two other issues, however, worth considering; whether the Iraq operation could’ve been executed better (and was therefore still sound in theory) and what to do now.

Even many of the original architects of the Iraq War now accept that given what we know now they would not have supported the invasion, but they argue that how things have played out is not their fault. They say that with a more competent administration we could’ve built a stable democracy in Iraq. Kevin Drum essentially dissects this folly, showing how the neocons never paid attention to issues of nation-building; in fact, they often disparaged it. They are not on the record having offered alternatives as to how the war could’ve been waged better and rarely did they ever mention democracy promotion.

What they are engaged in is little more than collective rationalization for a tragedy largely of their own making. To the oft-heard claim that if we had had more troops from the beginning the war would’ve been successful a report from the National Security Archives on a 1999 war game exercise for the invasion of Iraq puts this myth to rest. The games concluded that even with an invasion force of 400,000 the likelihood of stability was low.

The question of what to do now is obviously the most pressing. No matter how horribly conceived and executed this war has been, it is what we are stuck with. It appears that are only options are ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, but that “stay the course” is no longer one of them. Depending on the election results this Tuesday, we are poised to enter a new phase of the conflict, which I predict will be characterized by a slow draw-down of U.S. troops and more responsibility for the Iraqis to secure their own country and stop the bloodshed. Stay tuned; unfortunately, things could get much worse.

P.S. Don't forget to update your RSS feed if you haven't already, and also check out the new "News and Commentary" section. Thanks.

Jason Scorse

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October 1, 2006

When Fighting is the Moral Thing to Do

There are times throughout history when all defenders of liberty have a moral responsibility to take up arms. World War II clearly met this standard. A genocidal maniac backed by the most powerful military machine was on the move, conquering free nation after free nation, and literally threatening civilization.

As much as I am horrified by all forms of violence and believe that military campaigns are used much more often than is justified either morally or strategically, if I believed that the world faced a threat similar to Hitler I would take up arms and fight for freedom. For example, if massive armies of Islamic radicals were invading Europe and taking over the Middle East in a power grab that threatened to turn large swaths of the free world into Taliban-style totalitarianism it would be my duty to fight.

But I see nothing even approaching this scenario on the current world stage. I believe that there are many disparate bands of Muslim radicals and jihadists, who hate each other almost as much as us, and whose desire for world domination is not matched by capabilities that are in anyway up to the task. While I believe terrorism is a serious threat, I do not fear that men in caves and the world’s most backwards societies threaten the foundations of Western civilization. Part of my confidence comes from the fact that most Muslims and Arabs hate Al Queada and want modernization and democracy as much as anyone.

But there are many on the right who disagree with me; who think my views are naïve. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Newt Gingrich and many of the neocons such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, all believe that we are facing foes as powerful and threatening as Hitler and Stalin. They compare the current conflicts to WW II and the threats of global communism and fascism.

What puzzles me is why we don’t see droves of people who share this view on the right (or left) lining up to fight if they believe that the threat is actually so great. There can be only two reasons for this inaction as I see it. The first is that they really don’t believe their own hype. It makes for good political rhetoric, wins elections, and is a good fear tactic to bully opponents. The other possibility is that they are cowards; if someone truly believes that we are facing a historical moment akin to 1939 then there is no excuse if one is able-bodied not to join the fight. While there are, no doubt, many cowards on the right (and left), I think most of them simply don’t believe that the threats we face are so dire. Their actions clearly are not consistent with such a belief.

When history is written many years from now I do not think that the consensus will be that the free nations of the world sat idly by and underestimated the threats from global jihadists; in fact, quite the opposite. The dominant view will be that the U.S. unwisely overreacted to a significant, but not existential threat, and by grouping all Muslim and Arab groups into one undifferentiated “war on terror” we played right into the hands of the jihadists, who used the widespread perception of war on Islam as their number one recruiting tool. By uniting many different disparate groups against us and failing to adequately prioritize the threats, we made the conflict longer and more difficult, but in the end, despite our mistakes, we ultimately prevailed because liberal-democratic values are superior to religious fanaticism in every conceivable way.

Jason Scorse

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September 24, 2006

Moving Beyond The Middle East

I have Middle-East fatigue; I admit it. It deeply saddens me that a region that only encompasses roughly three percent of the world’s population usurps so much of the world’s attention and energy. While it is true that the carnage in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and more recently in Lebanon, is highly disturbing and demands attention, (unfortunately) there are other areas of the world where the suffering and oppression is much greater (in fact, orders of magnitude much greater).

In an ideal world international energy would be focused at least somewhat proportionally to the scale of the problems; areas where the most people are suffering would receive the most attention. If this were the case, Africa would receive much more attention than it currently does. Aside from the continuing genocide in Sitemap