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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Who let the dogs out

Early hand-off, the best diplomatic move I've seen from the Bush administration to date. They are to be commended on achieving this milestone. We've been a long time waiting for a broad move that's not controversial - something "good" to happen. I don't think there's a credible argument out there for anything short of Iraqi sovereignty. It's something of a no brainer. But as always, the devil's in the details.

The dogs of war have been unleashed in Iraq. They are terrible, they have no goal, they are not ours or theirs, they are not tame, they are not forgiving, humane, just or loving. These dogs have given birth to the new Iraq. And although we're "Mission Accomplished" and we've seen the "end of major hostilities" the body count clearly shows the dogs are at large.

Note: The "dogs of war" does not refer to the people on the ground - soldiers, just as the "fog of war" does not refer to actual smokey stuff. The dogs of war are a power or spirit that comes with the cessation of civil control, of law, the suspension of a system that separates judge and jury. The Geneva convention is an attempt to put a collar and leash on the dogs, but it's a fragile tether (as we've seen).

The Numbers from the Iraqi POV. Win, lose or draw?

People like to measure the success or failure of a war based on numbers. Let's have a look at some numbers to see if they tell us anything:

According to Digital History, a University of Houston website, 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War and Vietnamese deaths are estimated at between 1 and 2 million. Illustrative graphics found here. I do not endorse this site, just think they give a good representation of how big these numbers are.

In an attempt to stop North Vietnamese assistance to the Lao, and to prevent a communist group from coming to power in Laos, United States planes rained more than 500,000 loads of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973. Some 300,000 tons of bombs fell on Xieng
Khouang Province.
The United States Air Force dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years on the people of Laos — from 1965 to 1973. Over 2,000,000 tons. Estimated civilian deaths: 500,000 men, women and children. (The communist group that was coming to power was doing so through a democratic process.)

`91 Gulf War: The number of coalition wounded seems to have been less than 1,000. Iraqi casualty numbers are highly disputed. Some claim as low as 1,500 military killed, some 200,000. Many scholars believe a number around 25,000 to 75,000. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from 100 to 35,000.

US invasion of Panama:
More than 12,000 troops US were resident in Panama before the invasion. Somewhere around 2000 more were deployed.
Casualties on both sides, civilian and military were in the hundreds.

Somewhere around 145,000 coalition troops in Iraq right now. Iraqi civilian casualties are at around 9000
500 US casualties - 5000 injured. (in roughly 500 days)

Silly to think these numbers are conclusive proof of anything other than war kills people. That's hardly new information, but the numbers are part of what we need to keep in mind. There's no correlation between number of casualties, days fighting, or dollars spent with the success or failure of a war. That's because (from an executive leadership perspective - not a military perspective) the engagement in war is the admission of abject failure. The purpose of US foreign policy is to prevent wars and to secure trade. When the executive branch (which is constitutionally responsible for foreign policy) fails, the last option is to use force. The President basically abdicates some of his powers to the military. Exercising this option is an admission of failure. If diplomacy is poker, war is the diplomatic equivalent of a slot machine. A good poker player is wise to risk large sums at strategic points in the game. It's never wise to risk a large sum of money on a slot machine.

But if we won the war, casualties were kept low, we install a democracy, remove a despot, give the gift of freedom to a nation, haven't we won?

Ya, sure. We won the war. But we aren't Iraqis. We get to retain our self image as winners, as liberators, as people who live in a place that has electricity and water infrastructure, and security. We retain the pride we have in our nations and ways (even if you didn't want war and the way it was brought on caused you to loose faith in your political leaders, you still don't loose nearly as much as an Iraqi).

Losing sovereignty supercedes partisanism. Every four years the US allows itself a partisan, controlled revolution on a national scale. We can overthrow our government at regular intervals. Would we also feel free to do the same with sovereignty - i.e. have elections to decide a new constitution every 8 years? No way, because that's crazy talk. It's instructive to think of the US invasion of Iraq in these terms.

Many Iraqis would rather be ruled by a despotic maniac than lose sovereignty. Similarly, I would rather the current administration be in charge for another four years than lose sovereignty. It's a common feeling. The identity of the nation is held above the leaders, the government, the economy - whatever. America is an idea. Same holds true of Iraq.

Sovereignty was taken from Iraqis by the US (some would say because they wouldn't take it for themselves) and is now returned. There has been very little actual fighting (compared with other conflicts of similar numbers of US deployed). From a US perspective this is great. We have managed to conquer a nation and break its will to fight. And it's been done with minimal casualties.

But look at it from an Iraqi perspective. The symbol of male bravado they've grown up with (some loved, some hated, but all would know him as the embodiment of The Man) is checked for lice, a disheveled mess, emasculated. The father of modern Iraq (as bad as it may have been, Iraqis are proud of Iraq) is seen impotent, unable to fire his gun even once. He is fearful, meek, opposite of anything you were ever led to understand. The fear you held your entire life, the fear of a giant, the fear that you own, that you've carried everywhere, is shown to be derived from a coward. If you were one who loved him, you loved a coward. If you feared him, you feared a coward. You are a coward of a coward. The cowards of cowards did not fight the US in large numbers. They did not fight Saddam in large numbers. Any semblance of pride of country, pride in being an Iraqi citizen is eroded every day by dearth of dead.

Every Iraqi is angry. But who are they angry with? Those who have fought, or those who haven't. Those who've conquered or those who have been conquered. The leader or the led? And I'm not going to suggest this is rational. (I personally feel that a mix of culture, money, and historical geopolitics make for a situation so complex as to remove any personal responsibility for this war from even Saddam or George. They're just "errand boy(s), sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill")

The Unwanted Child of force

Know that the defeat of the American South remains. "The South will rise again", a hundred thirty and nine years after the civil war, is not an uncommon sentiment. Not that the South truly believes in another civil war, but there's an indignation that remains in the identity of southerners. And there's a proportionate righteousness in Northerners. (I can say this as a Californian. No vested identity in the civil war. No use in bragging about where I'm from or defending it. The numbers speak for themselves). This lasting sense of loss persists in a people who live in a superpower nation, people who have a secure and stable society. How long will Iraqis wear their loss?

The dogs of war have planted their seed in Iraq. She's been inseminated by force, by a foreign culture (one that we understand as owners, but they would understand only as subjects) We're seeing the birth of a new Iraq. If this infant Iraq survives to see the dogs kenneled, what's the likelihood of such a tainted baby being accepted? How are the Iraqi people expected to identify with this new society, the one they didn't ask for? (and by ask for I should imply demand. And I'm not suggesting that there ever was hope for a revolution in Iraq. My point is that hindsight will prove costly to the Iraqi psyche as they lose the ability to understand Saddam's hold on the nation).

They'll always regret not doing the job themselves, whether that's rational or not. Or they'll make Saddam into a martyr. Remember, Saddam's relationship with the US only went sour in 1991, before that he was our man against Iran (Iran, the regional Muslim non-Arabs who speak up for themselves).
Saddam felt the Iran/Iraq war had been fought for the benefit of the other Gulf Arab states and even the United States and argued that all debts should be forgiven. Kuwait, however, did not forgive its debt and further provoked Iraq by slant drilling oil out of wells that Iraq considered within its disputed border with Kuwait -
Kuwait was trying to nationalize Iraq's oil. If Mexico did the same to Texas, I'm sure Texas would retaliate, oh, I mean the US would.

You say Potatoe, I say Potato (a revolution by any other name, regime change)

The US played a part in (at least) initiating and supporting regime change in the following instances (not an exhaustive list):

Iran: Deposed democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq, who had been elected to parliament in 1923 and again in 1944, and who had been prime minister since 1951. He was removed from power in a complex plot orchestrated by British and US intelligence agencies("Operation Ajax"). Replaced by a brutal dictator (remember the US hostages in Iran? They were taken because we were harboring their version of Saddam that they'd managed to oust. They wanted him back to apply their sovereign law to his crimes and hold him responsible for what the US government would not). Iran may not have garnered US favor by showing this firebrand independence, but they've maintained their pride.

Chile: Participated in a military coup
(follow this link to document from the Nixon Library, not a joke. But the name does suggest a certain skepticism about the non-fiction section. www.nixonlibrary.org: this website also ask the question: would you send your kid to the Richard Nixon Library sponsored History Camp? )

There's also Panama, Granada, Guatemala and several other actions I won't get into here. Fingers in a lot of pies. The US has never seen ten consecutive years of peace (can't find my source on that right now, but I'll leave it to you to name a 10 year period without a US military incursion/casualties. I don't believe there's been one).

The threat or action of nationalizing resources is the common denominator between Iran and Chile. Funnily enough, democracy was also a common denominator. So, it seems that when a democratically elected leader does things the US objects to, it reserves the right to invade and install a puppet dictatorship. When a sovereign dictatorship does things the US objects to, it reserves the right to invade and install a puppet democracy. In either case it takes at least another turn of the gyre for any given nation to right itself from invasion.

Iran having shed the Shah, Chile after losing Pinochet, now stand with a sovereign identity. That's extremely important for any average person on the street. It provides a basis for national pride. That provides a basis for security. There's a daily debate in Australia about the influence of England and the US on Australian foreign/domestic policy (and a lesser debate on the lack of influence of Asia, the geographic local neighborhood). Central to this debate is the concern for the image of sovereignty. It's a precious thing. It's a concept on a huge scale (much larger than we usually think or feel), but it's so personal. It's identity. We must not be owned. We must own our identity. Iraqis are going to either take on a familial relationship with the US (similar to how the Japanese have coped with defeat, occupation, and indoctrination) and assume ownership through engagement. Or there will be another turn with the dogs (civil or regional war).

If you don't think it's possible for Iraq to forgive the US and form a familial relationship with the US, take a good look at Japan. There were vast violations of humanity on both sides. There's a huge cultural divide, a complex historical and linguistic divide. There aren't two better allies in the world today - to the extent the Japanese PM is willing to rewrite the constitution to get his troops on the ground in Iraq as part of the coalition. It's one of the most beautiful gestures I've seen in this mess.

Please keep in mind that a democracy is a system of governance, not an economic system. Iran and Chile nationalizing resources were the symptom of leftist leaders making populist moves. A similar threat would have been seen by King George when the honorable Founding Fathers became insurgent guerrilla fighters against a soverign government.

The Obvious Conclusion

I understand that it appeared economically necessary for the US to violate the democratic will and sovereignty of various countries. I don't particularly agree with it, but I understand the economic rationale behind it. I just feel it should be pointed out that we're being sold a democratic Iraq on principle, but that Iraq has not been acquired by similar principles. It's a "do as we say, not as we do" doctrine. This type of arrogance comes with Empire. It's often the harbinger of the end of Empire.

Humility is the canary in the coalmine of culture. I can think of any number of parables that doom the arrogant to fail. From the Tower of Babel to Snow White. Remain humble, be rewarded. Take on arrogance and be punished. It's a conclusion so obvious as to be cliché. I hope I've left enough bread crumbs to show that I haven't been headed for this trite, sentimental call for compassion. Who's left standing in line for another bitter pill of contrite, self-critical, America-bashing? Nobody I hope. But I fear there are a lot of folks out there wanting to right words to relieve them of the guilt of association. Others are looking for the right words for justification.

I'm not in this for a conclusive finger-pointing accusation. I'm more interested in discovering the nature of what's going on than I am in making a judgement about whether it's good or not. I'm not sure how people do judge the value of things without an understanding of their nature. I think we do it on an emotional level, at a personal scale. But the world is primarily not emotional, or personal. We interpret it at that level, but it doesn't work at that level.

Iraq, or any system with more than a few variables, is complex, largley unpredictable and chaotic. Complexity is defined by a constant amount of uncertainty (if there weren't uncertainty involved, it'd be simple, known). In any complex system the degree to which you have an accurate measure of one aspect proportionaly blurs your knowledge of another aspect. We know this, and have known this for thousands of years (in various ways). It's why games work, why life is interesting and why bad things happen to good people. If we can all agree the nature of life is complicated, why do we continue to insist upon definitive values? How can we progress to a relativistic way to argue that recognizes complex relationships? How can we be satasfied with uncertainty in our leaders? How can we see the honesty in the uncertainty as valuable? The challenge is to face the world as it stands first. Only then should we feel able to decide if it needs judgment.

I'm having trouble stopping, so before I get into why it's important that we understand that every coin has at least three sides, I'll post.

End of Part I (yes, there's quite a bit more actually)

Don't miss Part II for:
The disintegration of argument
The vaquishing of Evil (and Good) to the malaise of the abyss
The problem with young people these days
Chaos for fun and profit
Faith without the middle-man
and much, much more

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