Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Bunch of Losers

At this point, while the United Nations is trying to put together a viable peacekeeping force, we are holding our breath hoping the cease fire will hold between Hezbollah and Israel.  Whether or not it does, or if ultimately a prisoner exchange now being hinted will take place, one thing is absolutely certain – in this conflict everyone is a loser.  Trying to quantify those losses, who lost more who less, would be a fool’s errand.  No matter how you spin it, the losses on all sides (some of them yet to become apparent) are significant and there will be consequences, possibly irreversible consequences. 

Perceptions play an enormous role in our world.  Just look at George Bush whose entire administration is built on creating them out of whole cloth.  The most immediate result of the current conflict is that long held perceptions about the Middle East have been shattered.  The idea that Israel has an invincible military force, a David that could knock out multiple Goliaths in a matter of days, is now a distant memory.  So, too, is the notion that Hezbollah, however troublesome and lethal, is a largely disorganized rag tag fringe group of terrorists with more bark than bite.  Gone also is the idea that it has only a small following in Lebanon and in the region.  Israel’s army may have suffered fewer losses of life and meted out greater physical damage but if this is a victory it’s to say the least a hollow one.  It is the kind of victory that the United States boasted early on in Iraq; no win at all.  Hezbollah may have proved endurance and the ability to hit places once thought beyond its reach, but at a very high cost to the very Lebanese that they proclaimed to be protecting and with no apparent gain for the Palestinians whose cause they espouse.  Both sides lost dearly.

The Lebanese, caught squarely in the crossfire, may have lost the most because not only was much of their infrastructure and housing decimated; their elected government proved unable to prevent it and Hezbollah has probably emerged as the country’s preeminent and popular force.  Moreover, while the elected government finds itself unable to respond quickly even with pledged funds from other nations, Hezbollah hands out cash to individual families for rebuilding within days.  It isn’t only that they are being heavily funded by the oil wealth of Iran, it is that NGO’s regardless of who they are generally can execute far more nimbly than governments.  That gives them an added edge, but in the end will also present some problems if they reach their own goals of morphing from terrorist outsiders into governance.  Once shackled with the business of running a very troubled and economically crippled country, their response time will plummet too and the Lebanese street may soon find itself less impressed.

Another big loser of course is the United States which, with its misguided policies and arrogance, the Bush Administration has systematically transformed into the ultimate toothless tiger.  The world’s only superpower, locked helplessly (not to mention haplessly) in the Iraq quagmire, has been rendered effectively impotent in dealing with large problems elsewhere.  Despite the lip service paid to us and our leadership by other countries, there is a clear sense that we are no longer taken seriously, certainly not given the respect that we commanded when people like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton ran the place.  Only with France’s (of all countries) help did we succeed in getting the UN to adopt a highly compromised resolution and Kofi Annan is having a hell of a time prying volunteers out of member states to enforce it.  Most nations are reluctant to send their kids into this unpredictable territory and the United States, beyond being stretched to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, is seen as a partisan rather than an honest broker and thus is unwelcome.

Occupation brings with it unintended consequences.  No matter how powerful the occupier may be, it is inevitably a no-win situation.  On one level it’s simply that any occupier tends to be a minority outsider who far from being welcome is seen as illegitimately lording over the majority.  Ironically even though they were native Iraqis, Saddam’s minority Sunni reign over the majority Shiites were seen in the same way and presents a curious parallel to our current occupation of Iraq.  Like him we’re seen as a tiny minority that’s calling the shots.  The only differenced is that we are truly outsiders and that, all of our talk of democracy notwithstanding, the country is more destabilized and dangerous for ordinary folk than it was in his day, killing fields and all.  Israel is caught in the same quagmire with its even briefly renewed occupation of southern Lebanon and it unending occupation of the West Bank.  In both cases, it constitutes a tiny minority that rules only by the sword.  Occupiers don’t make friends and the longer they stay in place to deeper the resentment.  Inevitably occupiers become losers.

In the end that is the nut of the problem, and while the UN feverishly seeks to put a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel, no one (especially not the United States) is even talking publicly about resuscitating the necessary peace process.  There are no urgent shuttles between capitals and no legitimate plan being presented not merely to end the latest violence but that which has effectively continued at some level unabated since 1948.  It is not merely a situation in which everyone is a loser, it is also one in which no one has really clean hands.  Western and increasingly Eastern nations as well are hopelessly conflicted by their need for crude – no substantial consumer on the planet is seriously pursuing alternative sources of energy.  So we talk of support for democracy and at the same time coddle the Saudis and others.  By the same token you can bet that the Chinese won’t be voting for sanctions against Iran.  We have lingering guilt, and rightly so, about Israel which rose from the ashes of a Holocaust that might at least have been mitigated to some degree by a more timely entrance by America in World War II.  That guilt has prevented us from exercising even the tough love which, while not very popular among my fellow American Jews, might ultimately insure Israel’s survival more than the current inexplicable acquiescence to the status quo.

The fact is that, despite the ideological and sometimes religious rhetoric, Hezbollah and Hamas see coming to terms with Israel as impossible not so much because it is there, but because Israel’s “there” extends into their “here”.  Israel on the other hand (certainly its many thoughtful realists) sees the tide turning as the Arabs increasingly get their act together and feels both threatened and cornered.  They are well armed, but being a nation with a keen sense of history they know that the few can dominate the many only so long.  Unfortunately parties at such emotional odds, and despite knowing where they ultimately must end up, are incapable of turning the corner on their own.  Just as Iraq began its steep decline when US soldiers stood idly by watching senseless looting, Israel and its neighbors suffer because we and other nations in the world are standing idly by watching the mayhem and doing little to stop it much less helping the parties with a process that they are clearly incapable of executing on their own.  Until that changes we all will continue to be losers.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Say it ain't so, Joe

Why was Joe Lieberman able to accept defeat when he actually won and unable to do so when he actually lost?  Beats me, or does it?  I remember years back when Jack Javits lost his party’s primary and insisted running on the independent Liberal line. That act of self indulgence, gave New York and the country Al Damato.  Javits, suffering at the time from ALS, knew that he was terminally ill but personal vanity would not permit him to let go.  What a tragic end to a proud and distinguished career of public service.

I don’t think it was the War alone that helped defeat Lieberman.  To be sure his stance on it coupled with his mystifying coziness with George Bush played a huge role in yesterday’s primary.  But it may also be that Joe Lieberman and his particular kind of centrist politics simply doesn’t cut it any more.  Let’s not forget that he was absolutely trounced in the last Presidential cycle where voters consistently rejected him and where, to a large extent, he became more of a caricature than a seriously considered candidate.  Incumbency both hurt and helped Lieberman yesterday.  On the one hand, interviews suggest, a significant number of his constituents have come to believe that their Senator had lost touch since Al Gore infected him with the national office bug in 2000.  That cost him.  At the same time, there were those who cast their votes for Joe based on some residual sense of loyalty.  That probably produced a somewhat misleadingly result.  Incumbents usually are shoe-in victors in this country.  For that reason alone, given the fame of the incumbent and relative anonymity of the challenger, I’d read Joe’s defeat as decisive.

Something else may well have been at play yesterday, perhaps below the surface, but no less significant.  More than any other Democrat, Joe Lieberman has worn his religion and his religiosity on his sleeve.  Perhaps his beliefs did not draw him to the radical fringes seen among Evangelicals, but in many substantial ways the Religious Right surely considers him as a compatriot, a fellow faith-based office holder.  While Connecticut is one of those Blue States, could we (without over reading it) be seeing the first signs of a return to real Church-State Separation?  Remember, Ralph Reid known best as the leader of the Christian Coalition recently lost the Republican primary in Georgia.  Perhaps that was all attributable to his Jack Abramoff connection, but maybe there was more to it.  Could the winds be changing?

Joe Lieberman defensively suggests that in supporting the underlying Iraq policy he has nonetheless been critical of its execution.  I guess most of us missed that fine distinction.  There is no doubt that Joe bought into the policy which includes of course the mantra of bringing democracy to the region.  He believes in democracy and so do I.  The problem is that, like the Bush people, Lieberman seems to like democracy in a abstract or when it’s working for him, but not in the absolute.  What doesn’t he understand about losing an election?

The fact is that Lieberman’s continued selfish candidacy can only weaken the Democratic Party and put at risk a precious Democratic seat in the Senate.  Looking at the last two years, we know that potentially includes placing another far right member on the Court or letting the administration proceed with its power grab and destructive policies absent real checks and balances.  I hope Party leaders, including President Clinton, will remind him of that fact and, most importantly, support the elected nominee. In the meantime Joe, take a good look in the mirror; better still look at me squarely and say it ain’t so.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Where's the Bathroom?

When, you get to a new place make sure you know where the bathroom is located.  Yesterday afternoon CNBC broadcast seasoned journalist David Gregory’s long interview of Condi Rice.  It was quite a performance of dodging and weaving not to mention a verbal re-writing of history to suit her objectives.  The interview and her glib gloss was a marked contrast from the sobering and candid words of the Generals just the day before.  Perhaps most striking and revealing was Dr. Rice’s contention in response to a question that we didn’t dismantle the Iraqi army, it dismantled itself.  Wow.  Even casual observers of this tragedy know that Paul Brenner, the President’s appointed “viceroy” of Iraq ordered the dismantling of the Army, a centerpiece of his debaathification program.  It stands as one of the most striking blunders of the post invasion period ranking right up there with permitting wide scale looting dismissed by Secretary Rumsfeld as “things happen”.  These are the people in whose hands we find ourselves, something that even a blowout victory for Democrats this November won’t be able to change.

You don’t hear too much about paradigm shifts these days – when the bubble burst and wiped out a lot of tech companies the period’s popular nomenclature went with it.  But the truth is that we are in the throws of a major paradigm change and have yet to find a way of addressing it.  The downward spiral in Iraq (along with the less covered one in Afghanistan) and the current wars Israel is fighting south and north of its borders evidences a sea change in the state of things.  To some degree, it’s not totally new.  The past is filled with individualized examples of seemingly ragtag combatants overcoming well trained conventional forces.  In most cases these happened during revolutions or were aimed against outside oppression or misguided colonization.  When people are fighting for their homes or their beliefs, they tend to have a significant edge.  A recent blog suggested our own revolution and Israel’s early struggle for independence as examples.

What we are seeing now is something far different.  While it may be taking place in specific locations, it has its locus more inside the individual than in a state.  The running theme of course is Islamist extremism, a kind of global holy war against infidels.  As with any movement, it has leaders but they seem much more peripheral than what we’re used to.  Each time one of these assumed to be key players is removed from the scene, nothing really changes, except perhaps an intensification of the fervor and resultant violence.  The elimination of al-Zarkawi made no difference in Iraq (things have actually gotten worse) nor did the Israeli’s taking out of key Hamas leaders over the past years.  A lucky strike may kill Nasrallah but don’t expect it impact the outcome of the present conflict, certainly not over the long term.  Generals like to talk about neutralizing the enemy by destroying its command and control.  What seems clear here is that either command and control doesn’t function with these new warriors or that we don’t truly understand its nature or dynamic.

However maligned it has been since 9/11 our CIA remains a pretty sophisticated intelligence organization as does the Mossad.  Just as the former seems to have faltered in predicting the Twin Tower and Pentagon attacks, so too have the Israeli’s underestimated both the scope and strength of Hezbollah.  The truth is we know how to deal with nations, even to spy on them, but we don’t yet understand how to deal with decentralized and essentially unstated fighters.  The assumption has always been that people like that, people who have no real state sponsorship or funding – I see Iran’s support as opportunistic and subject to their own strategic interest of the moment – can’t get their act together on any sustaining basis.  Their successes are largely viewed as flukes, strokes of luck not the result of disciplined strategic operations.  And we have been so wrong.  All the reports from the front suggest that Hezbollah fighters are well trained and given the magnitude of missiles in play, they have clearly been preparing themselves for war over a considerable time.

The problem we face, and what makes all of this so unnerving is that not only don’t we know who on the other side can call a halt to hostilities; we don’t know that any one person has that power.  Moreover, it is becoming abundantly clear that every cessation is merely an interruption in what looks like an unending struggle whose endpoint remains obscure.  Dealing with people who have a different view of death and a different take on purpose requires a mindset that continues to elude us.  One thing is certain, meeting violence with violence doesn’t seem to be working no matter how overwhelming it may appear.  We are neither crushing nor intimidating, though for sure we are making those in range of our weaponry angrier by the day.  Why not get into the fight, there seems to be nothing to lose.

There are lots of problems with Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Dick Chaney and George Bush.  They have been blinded by ideology and shown themselves go be inept managers.  But the real problem is that they remain cast in another time in age, experience or outmoded assumptions.  I don’t quite know how to define the President, but the other three are essentially Cold Warriors.  Rice may be younger, but as a Russian Studies academic, her world view remains just as arcane.  This is not to say that anyone else on the scene has shown even a glimmer of new thinking, but it’s clear that we need just that.  Don’t expect this to happen over night, and I certainly don’t pretend to know the answers, much less necessarily the proper questions.  But don’t think fresh approaches are any less urgent than reversing global warming.  At this point it’s hard to predict what’s more likely having the western New Jersey suburbs sitting squarely on the shores of the Atlantic or having the society we know disappear.  Hard choices, unthinkable realities that we dare not ignore.  But the first thing we have to do is find the bathroom.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Admission. Now What?

Listen closely, do you hear that sound?  Perhaps it isn’t a “great whooshing sound”, but it is the whisper of a changing policy on Iraq.  The Generals in Chief now admit that things may not be going right after all and that the bright new democracy that we created to replace the Evil One may be falling into civil war.  Really?  Where on earth did they get that notion?  Even Tom Friedman, one of the biggest supporters of our misguided policy (if not always its execution) seems finally to be throwing in the towel.  Can a last ditch October surprise to help save the Republicans in the coming election be far behind?  Perhaps, but don’t count on the forces having been unleashed in a Middle East now torn completely asunder to be cooperative.

They asked both generals if they could have predicted this a year ago.  Abizaid quickly said no, Pace noticeably hesitated and then concurred.  One wonders what he was thinking – should I lie or should I tell them we were clueless.  Donald Rumsfeld took umbrage when Senator Clinton suggested not so subtly that he had screwed up in a major way and should be held accountable – read that fired.  Don’t hold your breath.  The Decider is unlikely to make that decision.  Meanwhile Afghanistan is declining into the narco-feudalism from whence it recently came and Israel, the only real democracy in the area, is facing the first truly threatening threat in a very long time, if ever.  Tom Friedman says Iran will not ultimately gain from Iraq’s dismemberment, but the question is whether we have time for long term work outs.  We find ourselves at our most vulnerable just at a moment when the world desperately needs some powerful leadership not to mention credible leadership.

A woman from the Gaza “Street” was interviewed by BBC the other day.  She said nothing can change until and unless the Israel-Palestinian situation is resolved.  That may seem simplistic and formulistic in the face of what’s going on and all its complexities not the least of which is ever growing radicalization across the Moslem world.  But I think she is essentially right.  Friedman suggests a world conference to settle the Iraq quagmire.  I think one may be more urgently needed to get that woman’s problem solved.  The fact is that her concern is equally that of ordinary Israeli citizens.  They may currently support their government’s overwhelming response to ongoing rocket attacks (and who can blame them) but deep down they know what has to be done.  It isn’t only that tourism has been brought to a standstill, if things don’t change a lot of people, especially those with children, may opt to move out of the neighborhood.  Perhaps militant Islamists are willing to sacrifice themselves and their families, but for the most part human nature is to survive and everyone has a breaking point.

The partisan in me doesn’t hope that Bush can dig himself out, nor necessarily does it believe that he has either the intention or the capability.  The American in me hopes that we can indeed change course and begin crawling out of this deepening hole, sooner rather than later.  Our survival may depend on it.