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Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

Hats off to Bob Gates for being a true patriot.  For realizing that the real threat to our national security isn’t a group of angry beards in a Pakistani cave or a gaggle of rogue nations whose combined defense spending doesn’t approach one-tenth of ours, but rather the waste and cozy corruption within our own country.  Most cabinet secretaries jealously guard their resources and territory, resisting any attempts to trim budgets and curtail authority, to reign in the largesse they hand out to private contractors and corporate interests.  Instead, Gates has made it his personal crusade to cut the fat at the Defense Department and give resources back to Congress.  And Congress has refused him.

Congress has refused him?   Trillion dollar deficits, a national debt approaching levels not seen since World War II, an aging population unable to sustain its dependents, and Congress is refusing savings?  Well, if it’s related to defense dollars, and the jobs and political contributions tied to them, then, yes.  A case in point is the “back-up” engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter- a cool half a billion dollar price tag just in case the primary engine for the plane doesn’t measure up.  Doesn’t measure up?  When the government asks you to build something and it doesn’t measure up, then you either fix it or pay the money back, with interest.  But General Electric and Rolls Royce, the corporations who would like to build the back-up engine, don’t see it that way.  They (and their well paid lobbyists in Washington) think the government should hedge its bets and create some “competition” by giving them a piece of the action.  Gates rightly points out that if they wanted a piece of the action, they should have been more competitive in the original tender for the fighter, which was won by Lockheed Martin and its engine partner, Pratt & Whitney.

But this is not how our defense industry or Congress works.  Peel back the veil of “competitive bids” and “strict contracting standards.”  Dig deep.  If you’re Congress, you need to spread the greenbacks around a bit, to the hundreds of counties, communities and states that manufacture disparate parts for weapon systems that we will largely never use.  (As myself and others have said before, don’t count on getting into any dog fights with Al Qaeda any time soon, not when they can penetrate our defenses with an impoverished teenager wearing loaded underwear).  This is the game board that Gates would like to shake up- the defense industry’s shrewd battle map of key political and economic constituencies across the nation and the federal contracts that keep the money, jobs and profits flowing to them and their representatives.  It’s not about national security at all.  On the contrary, it’s about the political insecurity of our elected men and women and their penchant to put their careers ahead of what’s right for the country.  It’s not surprising that it takes an un-elected official to challenge them.

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A pair of instances recently reminded me how both sides- the “West” (more specifically, the United States) and the Muslim World- have engaged in so little self-reflection since the events of 9/11.  It is much easier to project outward than to take a hard look at your own society.  Problems are no longer yours when you can successfully argue that they come from some outside force.  For politicians and pundits, the temptation is too great.

This kind of gamesmanship has approached the truly absurd in the Muslim world.  On Friday a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan was ripped apart by a triple suicide bombing.  As I have written before, Sufism is the lighter side of Islam- a moderate force whose greater tolerance for things like other faiths and female emancipation has angered Muslim extremists.  It’s long standing traditions and practices across the Muslim world are the most direct, organic challenge to those who would spread the lie- that early Islam’s core strength was its angry, unforgiving unity and purity.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Islam’s original spread in the 7th and 8th centuries was indeed aided by the sword, but more important in its ascendancy was its acceptance of other cultures, faiths and its rational discourse on everything from trade to science.  The Christian world, caught in an orgy of religious violence, greed and superstition, could not compete.

How far has Muslim civilization fallen?  How completely have the two sides exchanged places, like a pair of reflections in the same mirror?  After the Lahore attack, demonstrations blaming the United States for the carnage raged across Pakistan.  Normally sane people reasoned that extremists wouldn’t have attacked the shrine if the Pakistani government wasn’t in bed with America.  In the rush to anger, the sick individuals who actually planned and executed the operation seemed to have been all but forgotten.

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Rumors were rife last week of a back room bargain between Iran and the United States for the release of the three Americans who “strayed” into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan last July.  Here’s a few reasons why its a bad idea:

  1. We Cant Betray Iran’s Great Hope: Deal-making with the mullahs sends the wrong message to the most hopeful force for organic, positive change in Iran in 30 years: the Iranian reform movement.   Since the fraudulent elections of last summer, brave Iranians have been rounded up, beaten, murdered, raped, and tortured- far worse than the mullahs would dare against any American in Iranian custody.  Now, we want release agents of this same repressive regime that we have captured in Iraq in exchange for the release of the three Americans?  So they can go back to Iran and join the feeding frenzy against innocents agitating for basic rights?  This would be a serious slap in the face to the region’s most dynamic freedom movement.  The subtext of the message would read: Our citizens, even the ones stupid enough to enter your country illegally, are more important than your freedoms.
  2. Don’t Reward Stupidity, Even When Its American Made: It’s tough to feel sorry for the three Americans who are now in Iranian custody after a “hiking trip gone bad”.  Most people, when they have a craving for mountain air, go to Colorado or Nepal.  Few think of the volatile, mine-laced region between Kurdistan and Iran.  What were these three thinking undertaking such an irresponsible act?  No one goes to Iraq these days for fresh air.  One can only assume they were trying to get into Iran for their own reasons back at the height of the protests in July: to witness the events first-hand and write a book about it.  There can be no other logical conclusion.  If that is the case, some more time in Evin prison might do some good.  They will certainly think twice before reckless adventure again.

It’s hard not to empathize with any fellow Americans held against their will anywhere in the world.  I think particularly of their mothers- recently allowed to visit them in Iran- and how much anguish this is causing them.  But what about Iranian mothers?  Don’t they deserve our compassion as well? Many have not seen their sons or daughters in years, some still do not even know if they are alive or dead.  They didn’t stupidly and irresponsibly cross a volatile border into a hostile country with no rule of law in search of blind adventure.  All they want are things that we take for granted every day- the right to wear what they want, say what they want, vote for who they want.

The future of Iran and its people is more important than a few rash kids seeking their 15 minutes of fame.  When they knowingly enter a post-conflict area between volatile nations, attempt to cross an international border illegally, then they cannot expect a deal for their return.

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Elected in no small part due to the backlash against rash Bush administration misadventures abroad, the incoming Obama team  swore to itself it would pursue a more nuanced, collaborative policy towards Iran.  And from the beginning, the president has acted with considerable restraint, even when the mullahs’ brutality against their own people streamed across the globe for all to see.  Instead, Obama instructed his Iran team to patiently build the case among friends and allies for crippling sanctions against the Iranian regime over its nuclear program.  Gone were the days when America would “go it alone.”  We had learned our lesson in Iraq.  The only way to stop a belligerent nation like Iran was with unified, concerted action by the international community.

And after over a year of concessions in Moscow, political capital spent in Beijing, and multiple arm-twistings at the UN, a draft resolution was finally produced.  Except it didn’t matter anymore, because only the day before the mullahs had agreed with Turkey and Brazil to a uranium swap mirroring the one that was proposed by the U.S. months before.  No one will read the fine print that makes this agreement different- that Iran’s stock of enriched uranium is much larger now than it was when the U.S. deal was proposed, that it can still enrich uranium to its hearts desire, that it can cancel the deal whenever it wants (for example, in reaction to a new UN sanctions resolution).

The mullahs have outmaneuvered the Great Satan once again.  How can a country that spends $10 billion a year on its measly military embarrass the greatest military and economic power the world has ever known?  Well, we haven’t made it that hard for them.

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You wonder what Afghan president Hamid Karzai was thinking over the past several days as he unleashed a fusillade of vitriol against his primary benefactor, the United States.  His comments, such as “foreigners” were responsible for the presidential election fraud that declared him the outright winner, or that he was prepared to join the Taliban if he was continually pressured to reform, have caused even his fellow Afghans to reel in alarm.  Has the president become unhinged?

No, not really.  He is actually acting within the historical tradition rather than on the fringe.  Karzai’s diatribe is part of the sad litany of foreigner bashing that has been a time-honored tactic of Muslim leaders over the last several centuries, since the Western world eclipsed the Islamic in all things important.  When an embattled ruler needs to shore up his failing legitimacy, there is no subject that garners more domestic currency than pointing to the “infidel foreigners in our midst”.

The problem, in Karzai’s case, is that the foreigners are the source of his legitimacy- without their militaries, treasure, and UN imprimatur, Karzai would be another Najibullah, hanging from the rafters with his testicles in his mouth.   Perhaps just before that moment he will lament, as he has in the past, in the most self-serving of ways: “See.  The international community has abandoned us…”  Playing the blame game until the end.

This is the main difficulty with the local proxies we have cut deals with across the globe to prosecute our War on Terror in its various incarnations.  They invariable act more like mercenaries than accountable civil servants.  The Karzai government has systematically raped and pillaged its own people for the last decade- it is this that is the main source of the various local Afghan insurgencies that we group together and conveniently label the Taliban; they fight against bad governance first, infidels, second.

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On a hazy day in Baghdad in late Autumn 2004, a friend caught up to me as I was walking just outside the Republican Palace, back then the U.S. embassy complex.  He was a pretty senior guy on the Governance Team, the outfit that had organized the transfer of sovereignty a few months previous to an all-Iraqi transitional government headed by a caretaker Prime Minister named Ayad Allawi.  His team was currently putting the finishing touches on the plan for Iraq’s first general elections since Saddam’s ouster, slated for January.

We had always had an interesting rapport, this friend and I.  He was the incurable American optimist- forever believing that we were emancipating the Iraqi people, that we were enabling them to mold their own destiny.  (Let’s suspend judgment for a moment on the fact that he had conveniently forgotten that his lofty mission had nothing to do with the original intention for the invasion)  I was always a bit more pessimistic – unsure what forces we were unleashing, forever guarded against the hubris of trying to shape nations in this part of the world, where my father had been violently exiled 30 years ago from his homeland next door in Iran.

It was a time of measured optimism for all us in 2004 as we edged closer to completing the transition (at least, on paper).  This was well before the insurgency began to spiral out of control and Iraq teetered on the brink of civil war.   My friend was animated on that day in Baghdad.  He was in lecture mode, pointing his finger at my chest.  “This is for all those so-called Middle East experts who told us for so many years that the Arabs weren’t ready for democracy.  That it would take hundreds of years of ‘civil society development’.  It was all an excuse for perpetuate dictatorship.  The Iraqis ARE ready, today.”

Six years later, I’m still not sure what Iraqi democracy is going to look like.  I imagine my friend, wherever he is, isn’t sure either.  One painful irony is apparent –  we went to war to remove a Sunni dictator and the fervently nationalist, secular cult of personality he ruled Iraq with.  Now, 4,000 American lives, countless carnage and sunken treasure later, we celebrate the narrow ascendancy (once again) of a secular, nationalist, former Ba’ath party leader who draws his main support from the Sunni population.  This is Pyrrhic to say the least.

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Iran’s cunning leadership has effectively divided the major powers of the world between those willing to engage with it and others who seek to contain or even obliterate it.  Without unity and leadership among these various nations, the idea of outside actors influencing real change in Iranian behavior is dead on arrival.  Iranians themselves are no more united on how they view Iran and its government.  Even within families sitting down for a meal or a cup of amber Persian tea, casual banter often turns emotional and contentious.  This is understandable.  There are few nations in the world, let alone the stagnant Middle East, that have experienced not one, but two popular revolutions in the span of a century (1905 and 1979).  Upheaval on this scale uproots lives and shatters families.  With a proud people such as the Persians and their long history of empire and high culture, the fallout from loss becomes even more acute.

While most Iranians have no love for the current regime, they have widely varying opinions on how to change the system and what should replace it.  Many Iranians, particularly the well-off of a certain age, embellish the old days under the Shah as a golden era when Iran was a model of sophistication and at peace with the world.  Other Iranians are more critical of the past or see sinister players such as America or Israel sabotaging Iranian self-determination at every pivotal point. Getting Iranians, particularly Iranians living outside Iran, to come together is no easy task.  But it could be the key to meaningful change in Iran.

You might be surprised at some of the numbers when it comes to the Iranian diaspora.  Estimated at 3 million strong worldwide, the largest concentration is in the United States, with over a million.  Other large communities exist in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Germany, the UK and Sweden, to name a few.  Even a sizable community of 48,000 Persian Jews live in Israel.  The Iranian diaspora is one of the most educated, professionally successful groups in the world, worth an astounding $1.3 trillion by one estimate.  This is what happens when violent revolution forces the business elite and professional classes of a large, resource rich economy into exile.  In America and Europe in particular, Iranians have penetrated their adopted societies at every level of industry, academics and government.  While they are content to remain and contribute to their new homes, most Iranians continue to have a strong emotional and cultural connection to their homeland.

This begs the question- why aren’t we doing more to harness this group to agitate for positive change within Iran?  They have the resources, the connections, and the motivation to make an impact.  They want to see their country restored, to see it prosper again and become an integral member of the international community.  They want the same freedoms for Iranians inside Iran that they themselves have enjoyed in the societies they have become a part of.

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$1.05 trillion already appropriated by Congress.  Billions more on the way to support the surge in Afghanistan and the drawdown in Iraq.  Over 5,300 American women and men dead.  Over 30,000 wounded, in Iraq alone.  Hundreds of thousands of others who will rely on government health care for the rest of their lives to cope with the mental issues and post traumatic stress of fighting a guerrilla war with a largely conventional military.  This does not include the millions of Iraqi and Afghan dead and displaced, the billions in damage to infrastructure and communities in both countries, the global shock to oil prices that precipitated and continued through the invasions and wreaked havoc on economies across the globe.

Here we have the costs of the shooting War on Terror over the last 9 years.  Of course, it does not include the billions of secret dollars spent on an array of intelligence agencies and the behemoth bureaucracy of homeland security.  Now, lets look at the other side of the ledger: what have we gained?  Neither Iraq or Afghanistan have emerged as the beacon of liberal democracy that our leaders have promised.  But let’s put that aside for a moment and be a bit more realistic, more calculating.  After all, no rational American can honestly believe that we invaded either of these countries to liberate their people and bestow freedom.  If that were true we would have liberated the Congo or Burma or Sudan long ago.  If that were true we wouldn’t have supported brutal dictators in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and until 1990, Iraq itself.

Let’s have an honest, wholly Machiavellian conversation devoid of patriotic rhetoric for once.  We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan because it was decided by our policy makers to be in our national interest to do so.  That’s what nation-states do- they act in their national interest.  The question is, after all the blood and treasure, has our national interest been furthered?  Nine years later, are Iraq and Afghanistan secure bastions of American influence or, at least, less under the influence of our adversaries?  Or, have our adversaries, particularly one adversary, capitalized more than we have on these changes we have wrought with precious lives and steel?

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In the latest news from Iraq, that forgotten battlefield where over 100,000 uniformed American men and women (and thousands of others without uniforms) are still stationed, the main Sunni political party has just withdrawn from next month’s national elections.  Their reason: A vetting panel headed by two Shi’ite politicians with close ties to Iran has disqualified over 500 candidates for dubious ties to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party.  The culprits: Ali al Lami, a guy who sends death squads to kill Sunnis and plants bombs targeting US GIs, and, surprise, surprise, our old friend, Ahmad Chalabi.

If you remember, once upon a time, Chalabi was the American darling, the guy who fed us the detailed (and doctored) intelligence on Saddam’s “imminent” threat to America that justified the 2003 invasion.  The guy who promised to spear-head a renewed, democratic Iraq that would stabilize a stagnating region and project freedom and democracy towards, among other countries, extremist Iran.  Now, it seems he is playing for the team he was originally recruited to fight against.  A country that cannot tolerate any dissent within its own borders and has steadily expanded its influence throughout the region since the American war machine removed the mullah’s two most virulent enemies: The Taliban and Saddam.

It wouldn’t have been too difficult to pinpoint the character flaws in a guy like Chalabi long ago- the incessant greed, the consummately feudal outlook to political power as merely a means to enrich oneself and grow more powerful; in essence, everything about Middle East leaders that needs changing.  Born into a family of carpet bagging courtiers to the old Iraqi monarchy (itself an artificial British transplant), Chalabi fled Iraq after the Ba’athist revolution and was the darling of the Jordanians before he was the darling of the Americans.  Then, the Jordanians found out he had defrauded thousands of their citizens through his Petra Bank pyramid scheme.  If it weren’t for the Jordanian royal family’s involvement (you guessed it, again, an artificial British transplant), Chalabi might have been lynched by a mob.  Instead, he went free.

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In a nondescript compound somewhere in the mountainous Tribal Areas of Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden sits cross-legged with his top lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, and watches Dick Cheney on ABC’s This Week this past Sunday.  Osama sits in silence listening to the Mother Hen of America’s Chicken Hawks- the cabal of ideologues with names like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Rice;  the ones who, like Osama, are good at sending other people’s sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, off to war.  And as Cheney begins to chirp his muscular sing-song and flex his wing span, a devilish grin rivaling the former Veep’s own signature smirk spreads across Osama’s face…

Zawahiri:  “He says our attacks are an act of war, not for criminal prosecution.”

Osama:  “Good.  We are at war.  Much of the world, even many of our own brothers, had forgotten that now that America has a president named Hussein who makes speeches to Muslims about peace.  Mr. Cheney reminds the Crusader-Jews of their anger, of their duty to fight.  Anger is what we want.  Rage begets rage.  It fuels the jihad that swells our ranks.”

Zawahiri: “He says Iraq was the right thing to do.  That Saddam had a relationship with terror.”

Osama: [chuckling] “Remember when Saddam invaded Kuwait and we went to my Saudi friend Prince Turki and offered to defend the Holy Land  against this Godless Arab pretender instead of letting the Americans handle him?  Now, history has been rewritten and he was our patron!  No matter.  Let Mr. Cheney rewrite history.  We ourselves have done so on occasion to bring our traditions more in line with our own brand of Islam.  This man Cheney understands you must control the past at all costs to rule the future.

What a favor the Americans did for us, and for the Iranians as well for that matter, by getting rid of that secular Ba’athist fool, Saddam.  Before Iraq the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh, and the world was with America.  Iraq gave us the window we needed to show the world the ugly side- to convince the faithful that this was not justified retribution but a sustained campaign for Muslim blood.  Let Mr. Cheney talk about Iraq.  In fact, make sure a tape of this discussion gets to Al Jazira, Al Arabia, and all the other local Arab stations with appropriate subtitles.  Let the world see how self-righteous Americans still boast about crusade in Iraq even as their British allies confess shame at the thousands of innocents murdered and maimed, the millions of refugees.  When the world listens to an unrepentant America, when American made bullets continue to kill Palestinian children, no one really cares about the atrocities committed by Al Qaeda in the name of God.”

Zawahiri: “He says the biggest strategic threat to America is Al Qaeda!”

[Shouts of joy and tongue ulullations reverberate within the compound until Osama signals for calm.]

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