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.

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