Monday, August 21, 2006

Monday with McKenna: Lies, Damned Lies, and Spintistics

Yesterday, I turned on the television for a minute, to check on the news. I had forgotten that it was Sunday morning; but within three seconds, I was reminded. An cacophony of noise hit me in the face; five or six people in a studio, yelling all at once so that you couldn't make out a single word.

I don't know which of the Sunday morning pundit shoutfests I had stumbled upon, and I didn't linger to find out. I turned the set off and read Frank Rich's column in the Times. Mr. Rich was describing how the punditocracy was heard declaring, in the wake of the Ned Lamont victory in Connecticut, that the Democratic Party had been overtaken by shrill leftists of the Blogosphere.

I will leave it to the discerning reader to form an independent judgment about the blogosphere in general; but here we offer today's post as an example of what Bill Moyers calls "the conversation of democracy." Today's topic is, once again, the war in Iraq. My partner Terry McKenna (who has also provided today's art) leads off, and I'll offer a response following his presentation.


Time again to look at the war on terror. In the current Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows urges the US to declare victory and then move on to more effective strategies to prevent future attacks.

In a similar vein, in this week’s New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote the following:

But the war in Iraq is wholly irrelevant to the means chosen by the London terrorists, and the means that thwarted them—dogged police work, lawful surveillance, international cooperation—are precisely those which have been gratuitously starved or stymied on account of the material, political, and human resources that have been, and continue to be, wasted in Iraq.

Even that relentless war hawk, Tom Friedman (NY Times) has thrown in the towel. In his August 4 column he wrote:

It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war...The longer we maintain a unilateral failing strategy in Iraq, the harder it will be to build such a coalition, and the stronger the enemies of freedom will become.

So when will George Bush come to the conclusion that every day we fight in Iraq, we make it harder and harder to do the necessary job of lessening the threat of terrorism?

Sadly, it doesn’t look like he’s ready for change. In an address last week to the State Department (quoted on the White House’s website ) the president pronounced the usual litany of freedom, democracy and terrorism:

...we've launched a forward strategy of freedom in the broader Middle East. And that strategy has helped bring hope to millions and fostered the birth of young democracies from Baghdad to Beirut. Forces of terror see the changes that are taking place in their midst. … (They) are striking back with all of the destructive power that they can muster. It's no coincidence that two nations that are building free societies in the heart of the Middle East, Lebanon and Iraq, are also the scenes of the most violent terrorist activity.

Pure spin. Whatever is going in the Lebanon now is regional. Yes, Hezbollah has strong alliances with Iran and Syria, and yes, they attacked the US marines (in Lebanon in 1982). Yes, they also were responsible for the hijacking of flight 847 in 1985 – but this was a classic hijacking made to secure a prisoner release. Hezbollah remains an organization of Lebanese Shiites dedicated to purpose of pushing back against Israel – and (in their dreams) destroying it*. However appalling, it’s a conflict between two parties, neither of them the US. The mess in Iraq is another regional matter. We went in, destroyed their existing order, and now we watch helplessly as various actors attempt to gain power. Neither Lebanon nor Iraq directly impact our internal security; they don’t even relate much to each other.

The consensus (discussed by Mr. Fallows) is that the effective portions of the “war on terror” have been completed. Our attacks on Al-Qaeda training bases ended their program of paramilitary training. Aggressive worldwide surveillance makes it nearly impossible for leaders to communicate – they are essentially on the run and hiding. And restrictions on moving money through normal channels have limited Al-Qaeda’s ability to fund terrorist activity.

What next?

I’ll leave it to all of you to read the Atlantic Monthly article. Instead of repeating his message, let me start with a little history lesson by referring to what is known as “The Great Game.” Starting in the early 19th century, Great Britain and Russia used spies, alliances and overt military action in a futile attempt to contain each other’s power in Central Asia. The end result was a stalemate, and a colonial legacy that is strongly felt to this day.

After WW2, a form of the great game resumed with the US taking over for Great Britain – and the USSR replacing Russia. A half century of international meddling resulted in another stalemate, but with the game now over, the residue is not pretty. In Asia**, we have nations like Iran that are yet to recover from our influence (Syria and Egypt are equally flawed creations of Soviet-inspired socialism – now mixed with crony capitalism). Africa is at best a mess, many nations are ruled by strong men dictators, many others are failed states mired in the violence of civil war (the warring parties often leftovers from militias originally armed by either the USSR or the US). In Latin America, some level of prosperity is finally coming, but as in Africa, armed militias, drug armies and corrupt governments remain.

So, what to do?

The consensus is that we need to regain the moral high ground. That events like the war in Iraq (and the recent eruption in Lebanon) remind the so called “Arab street” why they hate the west, and reinvigorate Al-Qaeda, a movement that is otherwise becoming more and more irrelevant.

Last lesson, again re. the cold war. Over the years, I have met a number of Poles who fled their homes during communism. They were much less ideological than left-leaning Americans who, even as late as the early 1980’s, viewed the Eastern block with dreamy idealism. What I remember most was that the Poles wanted access to goods like ice cream, stereos and phonograph records (this was pre-CD). Maybe if we lower the tension in the Middle East (and this could take years) we’ll get to a point where we discover the Arab equivalent of ice cream and stereos – then we can try to help them produce it.

—T. McKenna


As usual, my Republican blogging partner and I agree far more than otherwise. However, I would take issue with the Fallows recommendation that the American government simply declare victory and remove the troops. Obviously, I'm all for bringing the troops home—the sooner the better. It's the "declare victory" part that I can't stomach.

No matter the situation—whether it's a football game, a political contest, or a global war—you cannot be disingenuous about the outcome, especially if you have lost. This entire Bush administration has been defined by its recurrent compulsion to paper over the most grievous and destructive errors, and call them victories. Most recently, Joe Lieberman has shown us the result of a failure to admit defeat: he is creating polarization in a state where the great majority are Democrats, and an even greater majority oppose this war in Iraq. In other words, he is stirring up the flames of division in the very place where there should be none.

If we are, as a people, going to continue to swallow the lies and misrepresentations of reality fed to us by the Bush/Lierberman faction, then we will be led inevitably to see these tragic mistakes of tyranny repeated by future governments. We are far past the point of being able to afford such folly on the part of our leaders.

Tens of thousands of innocents have been murdered; 2,600 of our nation's young people have been returned to us in boxes, while another 19,000 suffer from the most hideous of physical and psychological traumas. We owe all these dead and wounded nothing less than the most clarion honesty we can muster. We must, as a people, be unflinchingly clear—both for the sake of the victims of our government's atrocities, and for the benefit of future generations. Our government and its policies have failed us; our media have failed us in their lapdog regurgitation of the talking points of tyrants; our elected officials have failed us in their sucking at the tit of K Street while a nation trapped in a war based on lies desperately needed their attention and leadership. The Iraq war was and is, by any objective measure, a complete and abysmal failure. This is the recognition we owe those who have died and been ruined by this failure of leadership. We owe them our candor and our resolution that this river of blood in our nation's psyche be enduringly cleansed.

The question arises, why would we resist such honesty, when the facts so clearly support it? Well, pride is part, though not all, of the answer to that. I have already written about the personal and social costs of pride (and its alternatives), so I will not go there again, except to submit that this is not a time to worry about the inury that may be done to anyone's self-image, whether he be President, Defense Secretary, or honored media pundit. In fact, the more damage we do to such images, the better off we'll all be, and the greater will be the chances for growth and healing in the next generation.

What I do want to address is the perception that the kind of candor that I am recommending will deliver the imputation that "our troops have died in vain." This is a familiar right-wing argument to support the continuation of this massive failure in Iraq, and it is also used as a quick-and-dirty silencer for any and all dissent.

Let me suggest that to ask whether our troops have died in vain is to pose an incomplete question. I think a more appropriate question would be, "did they live in vain?" The overwhelming answer to that question is a resounding NO. If you would like proof of that, go to Crawford and talk to Cindy Sheehan or any of the parents gathered there. The essential part of finding truth is knowing where to find it; and I can think of no better source for truth in this context than these grieving parents. They will not merely tell you the truth; they will show it to you.

So we owe it to them, as well, that we be forthright and rigorously honest about the failure of our government's miserable expedition of tyranny in Iraq. Until we make honesty the cornerstone of our policy, we will witness continued failures, and a seemingly unending stream of the tears of mourning. But as soon as we drop pride—both as individuals and as a nation—and as soon as we demand candor of our leaders, we will have done the greatest honor to the sacrifice that the dead and wounded from this war have made; for we will have ensured that from their blood has arisen the firm resolution of a free people for a regenerative and transformative future, defined and led by clarity.



*Re. Hezbollah: their stated aim of destroying Israel is purportedly non-genocidal. Their stated wish is for Jews to be allowed to live in a Muslim Palestine as a protected minority.

**Radical Islam got a push during the war between the Mujahidin and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We armed and trained the Mujahidin, and helped the Saudis create the network of Madrassas that eventually led to the creation of Al-Qaeda and the blowback of September 11.


Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond
by Pankaj Mishra

Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game And the Race for Empire in Central Asia
by Karl Ernest Meyer, Shareen Blair Brysac, Shareen Blair Brysac

Read this article to remind yourself how the US, in its last act of the cold war, armed and trained the Mujahidin (including securing Saudi funding for the Madrassas in Pakistan that radicalized its young men).

Last: this brief note highlighting Haroun Fazul

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