Tag: John McCain

Political Economy

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Nicely Done, Senator.

John McCain gave a gracious concession speech that did not pander at all to the sentiments of his disappointed audience. Instead, shrugging off repeated boos from his supporters, he spoke firmly about race, about bipartisanship, and about the responsibility of all Americans to support the person who will now be our President. In other words he joined Barack Obama in calling on the best parts of us as citizens.

This was the McCain I used to respect, the McCain I lobbied for during the Republican primary.

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Best. Endorsement. Ever.

This piece — written by a former student of mine — may be the funniest, raunchiest, and possibly most insightful endorsement of Obama I’ve read this campaign season:

McCainaic No More.

Oh, and also: what Dan said, except that I’m not writing a piece for for Culture11.

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When Mavericks Go Rogue

This, SNL’s cold-open with John McCain from this past Saturday, was quite funny. As I mentioned earlier, SNL has done a really good job pointing out the fundamental flaw in the McCain campaign

Its not just that McCain is so tied to Bush, or that he’s a true Maverick–a Republican without money–but that he’s allowed himself to become such an object of satire, so open to ridicule. All of the punch-lines in that sketch are points that McCain has emphasized on his campaign. Indeed, at one point or another, things he’s put as the centerpiece of his message, substituting for substance. And, in every case, the more we learn about each of McCain’s gimmicks–from Sarah Palin to Joe the Plumber–the less appealing they become. When sold on QVC, they seem vacuous and empty and invite the comedy that SNL has been able to produce. At this point, McCain seems to be playing a caricature of himself, and all it took was him on SNL to break the way between farce and reality, merging the two in something looks like a Frank Rich column.

Obama, by contrast, is much more difficult to mock in satire–in part because he’s solid, solid as Barack. In displaying a calm, cool, and collected demeanor, he has seemed less energetic at times, but has also not provided the openings for satire, the point where a small exaggeration, a small quirk, a known penchant, can be turned into a devastating critique. I’m sure, in time, someone will figure out how to do Obama in comedy, but it is telling that in the nearly 2 years of this campaign so far, no one has produced a cutting, insightful, and funny send-up of Obama.

One only hopes that a pending Obama Administration would be as productive as a Gore administration might have been…

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McCain’s fundamental problem

is best articulated here.

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Quick Debate Thoughs

I actually enjoyed last night’s debate much more so than the previous three. Part of it could be that I watched with a real-live crowd of college-aged students instead of by myself at home with only my minuscule live-blog audience. But mostly, I think, it was because it was, finally, more of an actual debate and less of a set of parallel talking points. The two actually had to speak to each other and were given sufficient time to articulate a campaign position, criticize the opponent, and then respond directly to that criticism. It made for a much more lively show.

Overall, I thought that both candidates boxed their corner well on the issues. I actually like it when they each go after each other’s health care plan or tax plan, as you can see that there are clear differences between them on key issues.

The best question was when Schieffer asked the obvious: you’ve each called the other nasty names (and proceeded to list them all), will you say that to his face here live on national TV? Like Nate, I think this is where McCain started to lose the contest, however I do think that Obama’s response here was very important in allowing McCain to over-play his hand. After McCain’s missive about not enough town hall meetings and negative advertising, Obama replied:

And there is nothing wrong with us having a vigorous debate like we’re having tonight about health care, about energy policy, about tax policy. That’s the stuff that campaigns should be made of.

The notion, though, that because we’re not doing town hall meetings that justifies some of the ads that have been going up, not just from your own campaign directly, John, but 527s and other organizations that make some pretty tough accusations, well, I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks.

What the American people can’t afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies. And what they deserve over the next four weeks is that we talk about what’s most pressing to them: the economic crisis.

Sen. McCain’s own campaign said publicly last week that, if we keep on talking about the economic crisis, we lose, so we need to change the subject.

And I would love to see the next three weeks devoted to talking about the economy, devoted to talking about health care, devoted to talking about energy, and figuring out how the American people can send their kids to college.

I think this was a very effective way to rise above the attacks, return the focus to “issues” and allowed McCain to make himself look angry.

Down hill from there, according to all the insta-polls, McCain clearly lost.
Now, I’m not totally sold on that–to a certain extent, I think these debates are solidifying existing leanings, and more people lean Obama than McCain, so more will go for Obama’s performance than McCain’s.

But I also think that McCain doomed himself with these debates in that he forgot (or maybe Obama remembered) that “winners” (in the political narrative sense) are determined only about a third by actual substance. People also listen for tone, and watch body language. Obama appears clam, respectful, dignified. McCain is blinking incredibly and making astonishing faces in reaction to Obama’s statements, as if he’s shocked, shocked to hear that Obama differs with him. That image matters, and when you have a split screen, as we did in our venue, that speaks almost louder than the other candidate’s answers.

Game, Set, Match Obama.

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Ducking the Issues: The Candidates “Debate”

Why, o why do I subject myself to this exciting town hall styled ‘debate’? Is boring, and my prediction is that it stays boring, and in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t do all that much. And yet, I feel compelled to watch and blog. I guess it gives me something to do while my brisket is in the oven. Mmmmmmmmm brisket!

McCain is good in this format, its his strength. He’s hitting many of the same themes of the last debate. Obama is decent as well–he’s better at speaking directly to the questioner, whereas McCain is on campaign message a bit more. He told these same stories in the last debate for those of you who might have missed it.

I don’t really think that Warren Buffett would want to be Treasury Secretary…

That Obama knew the price of gas in Nashville is a good thing, obviously someone will instantly fact check this, but assuming he’s right, its a nice I’m in touch with your needs moment.

Updates

McCain has the zinger of the night– Nailing Jello to the wall. Of course, invoking Herbert Hoover is never good, as Hoover was the Republican. I like how McCain talks about taxes as if the tax code alone can solve economic problems.

Of course, the “Straight talk Express has lost a wheel” on the tax issue.

Keep ’em coming!

A commission! Did he say a Blue Ribbon Commission? Well, you can’t do any better than that!

Finally, McCain throws Bush and Cheney under the bus by name. Should I time stamp these little missives? Eh, too much work.

McCain likes the Kitchen Sink approach to solve problems. On health care–lets do lots of things. Here’s where he has a fundamental message problem, he’s saying government is the problem, the private sector is the solution. Has not read the financial pages lately? The unregulated market, the unregulated financial companies just got us into a mess. Everyone is looking to the government to bail us out.
(no one is getting his little do the math project, as my wife just asked, what’s he even talking about, do you understand his plan? no).

Hurray for foreign policy (we at the Duck should be excited about this, no?). I was just about to type “There you go again” on the Sen. Obama doesn’t understand, and Obama basically does that. Nice flip to McCain doesn’t understand.

This is such a status quo debate, so Obama wins in the grand scheme of things. No game changers here.

Brokaw, why must everyone have a doctrine? This question seems….. so Clinton Administration, so 1990’s.

Pakistan is the new Cambodia. Why must we re-fight the Vietnam war? Trudeau nailed this one this past Sunday.

Here’s what bothers me about this Israel / UN question from the Navy vet. He frames the UN as an impediment to US interest, as standing in the way of help to an ally. No one challenges the frame, that the UN could be a tool to help the US reply to just such a threat to world peace. This throws the UN under the bus, and in the long run, undermines the organization’s effectiveness as a tool of US diplomacy. McCain has no problem doing this, I had hoped for a bit more from Obama.

I like this last question, its perhaps one of the most important aspects of qualification for Presidential leadership. Obama pivots straight into his closing remarks. So does McCain. In part the question is vague enough to allow this, but I would have liked a more honest, reflective answer.

Ok, not as bad as I had thought it would be. Nate and Sean think that Obama won, and say that the focus group dials tilt toward Obama. Again, no game changer, Obama retains his lead. McCain makes no inroads.

Time to tend to my brisket, its been cooking for a nice 4 hours.

(and if anyone is interested, we can do the food chat and recipe share in a future post)

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al Qaeda’s electioneering

Current polls reveal that the economy is at the top of voters’ agenda and that they trust Senator Barack Obama to handle the ongoing crisis better than Senator John McCain. Today’s Rasmussen Daily Tracking Poll, for example, has Obama leading 51%-44% overall and by 63-32 “among voters who name the economy as the top voting issue.”

However, that same poll revealed that McCain has a whopping 74-24 lead “among those who say that national security is the highest priority.” Luckily for Obama, half the electorate says the economy is the most important priority, while only 19% “understand” it is national security.

Obviously, however, international events could change that calculus. In March 2004, an al Qaeda-affiliated terror group attacked Madrid’s train system just before the Spanish elections. The BBC reported 6 months later:

The evidence to date suggests that the Madrid attacks did not take long to plan or cost much to commit.

Given all that we know about the persistent vulnerability of open societies like the US, al Qaeda could do something to effect the election.

Remember the closing weekend of the close 2004 election? Osama bin Laden released a tape that Republican talking heads on TV interpreted as an endorsement of John Kerry, even as they gleefully boasted that “We want people to think ‘terrorism’ for the last four days…anything that raises the issue in people’s minds is good for us.”

That weekend, straight talking John McCain declared simply about the tape: “It’s very helpful to the president.”

Would al Qaeda strike the US in advance of the November 2008 elections in order to influence the results? Which candidate would al Qaeda want in office?

McCain promises to stay in Iraq to pursue victory, while Obama says the US will withdraw from Iraq over a period of 16 months and focus much more attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Where would al Qaeda prefer to fight the US?

If the US is attacked by terrorists in the next month, or even if bin Laden releases another high profile tape, national security issues could become much more prominent in the election and McCain’s prospects could dramatically improve as a result.

Ironically, if Congress manages to “solve” the financial crisis soon, the economy might become less of an issue for voters.

Then again, political science research reveals that voters tend to form a perception of the economy and the parties fairly well in advance of the election, making the results fairly predictable by Labor Day of an election year. If this is true, then the debates, the reaction to the debates, and other apparent campaign “signals” are merely “noise.”

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Done and done

I am now officially over Sarah Palin. Hard to believe, yes, given the odd fascination with her odd-for-a-Republican-VP nominee background, but its over.

More importantly, the Republicans need to start getting over her, or they are in trouble.

Palin has now done what the McCain camp needed her to do. She effectively seized the campaign narrative form Obama and brought it to the Republicans. She did so without involving President Bush. She energized the party base. She gave what everyone is going to say was a good speech last night (though I’ll admit I didn’t really watch it because I was finishing the powerpoint for a talk I’m giving tomorrow in Cleveland).

But her day is done because the real important speech of the RNC is tonight: John McCain, who if you may have forgotten, is the name at the top of the ticket. From here on out, its McCain v Obama, or McCain / Palin v Obama / Biden. Lets not forget: She’s not at the top of the ticket. And, the record shows, people don’t vote for VP, people vote for President.

Even the VP debates aren’t that important. The most memorable VP debate moment was when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle “you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle was done after that. And yet, Bush / Quayle still won.

With the convention over, McCain will get his post-convention bounce, and we’ll all be reading Nate Silver to see just how big it is. Then the real campaign will start in earnest, Obama v. McCain, and that’s why tonight’s speech is in fact the more important one.

Oh, and if you really want to swing the election, root for Overtime in tonight’s game. That’s right, its the kick-off for the NFL, in prime time on NBC. The key battleground of Northern Virginia, which Obama will be counting on to help him flip the state from red to blue, will all be tuned into the game.

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said yesterday the prospect of an extra-long game has caused some concern: “I had talked on background with a Republican convention planner a couple of weeks ago who said, ‘Don’t mention overtime. Overtime is our rain-in-Denver scenario.’ ”

I love the NFL.

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Sarah Plain and Tall II

Further thoughts on the Palin pick…

There seem to be two different logics to picking a running mate.*

Logic 1: Would this person make a good VP once elected? Could the person step into the role of President should the worst case scenario arise? Will the person be a partner in governing, capable of taking on a significant portfolio?

Logic 2: Will this person help the ticket win the election? Does the person bring some sort of constituency into the fold? Does the person shore up a perceived weakness in the top of the ticket?

You can kinda see where this is going… Obama seems to have followed the first, while McCain seems to have followed the second. Biden brings a lot to the table substantively–foreign policy expertise, deep knowledge of judicial affairs, mastery of the legislative process. He also has a few known campaign weaknesses, notably a tendency to go on and on and on and on and on and on and on… Palin brings the sizzle of picking a woman from way, way outside Washington. But its really hard to see her in the “Cheney” role at this point.

When Bush picked Cheney, you got the sense that the Cheney’s main role would be in governing, not campaigning. Recall when Clinton picked Gore–at the time, an out of the box selection, a southern guy rather than a ticket balancer. Gore, too, took on a substantial role in governing. Contrast with Quayle–supposedly to help Bush look younger and fresh, but not really known for any contributions to the Administration.

*These are ideal types, obviously in practice candidates consider all this and more when picking a running mate, but my claim is that one logic seems to dominate the process.

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Sarah Plain and Tall

My initial reaction to McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin to be his VP was: Who?

This is very out of the box for McCain. On the one hand, you kind figured he’d try something like this, because after watching Obama’s speech, he really to kickstart his campaign. On the other hand, picking a VP is supposed to be a serious choice, with the heartbeat away from the presidency thing and all. Palin, with zero, and I mean zero, national political profile, just doesn’t seem to fit that bill. She’s a major unknown. Under-experienced and unknown.

Davenoon, the resident Alaskan at LGM, drops some knowledge about Palin. Its the only bit of insightful commentary I’ve read all morning.

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The US and Georgia

Two good articles on the US role in Georgia. The first, by Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker of the New York Times: “After Mixed U.S. Messages, a War Erupted in Georgia.”

One month ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, for a high-profile visit that was planned to accomplish two very different goals.

During a private dinner on July 9, Ms. Rice’s aides say, she warned President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win. “She told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table,” according to a senior administration official who accompanied Ms. Rice to the Georgian capital.

But publicly, Ms. Rice struck a different tone, one of defiant support for Georgia in the face of Russian pressure. “I’m going to visit a friend and I don’t expect much comment about the United States going to visit a friend,” she told reporters just before arriving in Tbilisi, even as Russian jets were conducting intimidating maneuvers over South Ossetia.

In the five days since the simmering conflict between Russia and Georgia erupted into war, Bush administration officials have been adamant in asserting that they warned the government in Tbilisi not to let Moscow provoke it into a fight — and that they were surprised when their advice went unheeded. Right up until the hours before Georgia launched its attack late last week in South Ossetia, Washington’s top envoy for the region, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, and other administration officials were warning the Georgians not to allow the conflict to escalate.

But as Ms. Rice’s two-pronged visit to Tbilisi demonstrates, the accumulation of years of mixed messages may have made the American warnings fall on deaf ears.

The United States took a series of steps that emboldened Georgia: sending advisers to build up the Georgian military, including an exercise last month with more than 1,000 American troops; pressing hard to bring Georgia into the NATO orbit; championing Georgia’s fledgling democracy along Russia’s southern border; and loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia’s separatist enclaves.

But interviews with officials at the State Department, Pentagon and the White House show that the Bush administration was never going to back Georgia militarily in a fight with Russia.

In recent years, the United States has also taken a series of steps that have alienated Russia — including recognizing an independent Kosovo and going ahead with efforts to construct a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. By last Thursday, when the years of simmering conflict exploded into war, Russia had a point to prove to the world, even some administration officials acknowledge, while Georgia may have been under the mistaken impression that in a one-on-one fight with Russia, Georgia would have more concrete American support.

The story dovetails with both Rob’s and my suspicions about how to understand the different evidence floating around in recent coverage. To the extent that Tblisi focused on signals that we would back them, and ignored explicit signals that we wouldn’t, this would seem to justify some NATO members’ reluctance to embrace Georgia. On the other hand, I expect Tblisi has figured out the extent and nature of western backing by now.

The second story, by Matthew Mosk and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, appears in The Washington Post: “While Aide Advised McCain, His Firm Lobbied for Georgia.” Give it a read and make up your own mind.

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The Central Front Front and Center

What is the “central front” in the war on terrorism?
According to Obama, its Afghanistan. According to McCain, its Iraq. Bush–still president–has long asserted that its Iraq.

A pair of articles in the NYT yesterday and today suggest otherwise–Pakistan should perhaps be at the center of the discussion.

While Obama may in fact be closer to the mark with is focus on Afghanistan, the source of NATO’s troubles in Afghanistan seems to be emerging from Pakistan. The resurgent Taliban uses Pakistan as a safe haven to rest, re-arm, and retreat as needed. Now, we learn, much of this seems to be happening with the active assistance of the Pakistani ISI.

First, we learn that

A top Central Intelligence Agency official traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to American military and intelligence officials.

The C.I.A. emissary presented evidence showing that members of the spy service had deepened their ties with some militant groups that were responsible for a surge of violence in Afghanistan, possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the officials said.

There’s a reason why Obama, the Bush Administration, and just about anyone else with an official or semi-official position talks about Afghanistan and not Pakistan, as it is rather impolitic to do so. The government is fragile, the ISI seemingly has its own agenda, and Pakistan is a critical ally in the Afghanistan campaign. With official support from the government, the US can conduct certain operations in Pakistan, as well as use it for logistics and support to operations in Afghanistan. The CIA also relies on the ISI for intelligence on numerous terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Of course, the reason the ISI knows those groups well is because it supports many of them. As today’s NYT reports,

American intelligence agencies have concluded that members of Pakistan’s powerful spy service helped plan the deadly July 7 bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, according to United States government officials.

The conclusion was based on intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack, the officials said, providing the clearest evidence to date that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region.

The American officials also said there was new information showing that members of the Pakistani intelligence service were increasingly providing militants with details about the American campaign against them, in some cases allowing militants to avoid American missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The fact that this is coming out in the press is rather significant. As the Times reports, this was not the first time the US secretly confronted Pakistan over ISI support for militants. Now, however, as the story leaks, it puts more pressure on Pakistan. Some of this pressure may be welcome and help prod the government to cooperate with the US. It could, however, just as easily backfire and serve to further isolate the US from an increasingly radicalized Pakistani defense and intelligence establishment.

What makes Pakistan the central front in the war on terror is threefold. First, it is the source of support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants the US is currently fighting in Afghanistan. Cut off the Pakistani supply lines and safe havens and the US has shown that NATO forces can assert control over Afghanistan. Second, it remains the one place where radical anti-American elements are poised to take control of a state. The ISI is incredibly powerful in Pakistan–perhaps more powerful than the recently elected government, and it is rife with those who sympathize with Taliban goals. Moreover, there are a large number of radical schools in the tribal borderlands producing a cadre of future militants. And, of course, third, Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal.

So, when candidates are asked about the central front in the War on Terror, they should say Pakistan. But to do so is to fail the first test of diplomacy, and as a result, the best one can do is Obama’s work-around: a focus on Afghanistan and its open border with Pakistan.

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The Czech Republic: when a gaffe isn’t a gaffe


I have a very difficult time getting worked into a lather because John McCain has, on more than one occasion, referred to “The Czech Republic” as “Czechoslovakia” (video).

I’m less than half McCain’s age, and I often slip (during lectures no less) and call Russia the “Soviet Union” and substitute “Soviets” for “Russians.” Shockingly enough, I almost always do this, like McCain, in contexts when I’m discussing nuclear deterrence, ballistic missile defense, and other issues that were, um, rather salient during the Cold War.

In fact, Howard Dean made the same mistake at a session of Hardball, filmed at Harvard’s Kennedy School, during the 2004 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

(And yes, right-wing bloggers excoriated him for it.)

Regardless, I’m especially willing to be indulgent of the “Czechoslovakia” slip because the phrase “The Czech Republic” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Its not like politicians–or even ordinary people–routinely use the phrase “the German Federal Republic” or “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Most of us just say “Germany” or “North Korea.”

My wife, in remarking upon this, pointed out that the lack of a similar shorthand for the Czech Republic in the English language (and German and French, from what I can tell). In Czech, one just says “Česko.” In Russian “Чехия.” There’s no good reason we can’t call the Czech Republic “Czechia.” We just don’t; I submit that makes it harder, at least for those of us with vivid political memories dating back before 1993, to avoid this particular slip of the tongue.

Image source: wikipedia commons.

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Hillary supporters for McCain

Tom Toles pretty much sums up the issue in yesterday’s Washington Post.



Truly: ’nuff said.

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Being there

In the latest incarnation of the Iraq war issue in the general election, John McCain is criticizing Barak Obama because Obama hasn’t been to Iraq in some time, and therefore, he’s not qualified to comment on Iraq policy because he hasn’t “been there” to “see it for himself.”

Rhetorically, it’s a slick move by McCain. Take a widely perceived negative, his support of the war, and turn it into a positive by emphasizing experience and criticizing Obama’s capacity for sound judgment. There was some press speculation that Obama might now need to visit Iraq as a candidate to blunt this line of attack, which plays into McCain’s hands because its debating the issue on his turf.

This, however, raised a larger issue for me, one with implications not just for the election, but for research methods in the social sciences. Namely, how important is it to be there (or have been there) in order to make an argument and draw a defensible conclusion about a thing. We seem to have a fetish for certain types of experience, thinking it leads to insight about how certain things work. But such doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Take, for example, baseball. You’ll notice that the world of baseball analysts, managers, and team executives is replete with former players who supposedly “know the game” having been there and played it. For a long time this kind of claim to expertise ruled the day, until the “stat-heads” came along and showed that much of what the “baseball people” thought didn’t quite work that way. Hall of Fame player Joe Morgan is celebrated by some as one of the best baseball commentators for his work on ESPN’s Sunday Night baseball. He also has inspired a fantastic blog that revels in point out how foolish most of his comments are when subjected to statistical analysis. Can Bill James, who never played the game, know more about baseball than someone with a Hall of Fame career?

Back to Iraq and the election—can John McCain really “know more” about the war because he 1) served in the military and 2) has visited Iraq many times when compared to Obama who has 1) not served and 2) visited rarely, and not for some time? Does being there really matter? Can one develop and claim expertise from non-experiential research?

Now, before this becomes a stats vs. anthropology argument (as the baseball analogy might portend), I want to suggest that both McCain and Obama have an important point. It is important to be there, but being there alone does not necessarily mean that your evidence, evaluation, and conclusion is any more valid. I’m reminded of an ISA panel I attended, maybe this year, where a number of critical security scholars were discussing the state of the discipline, and one prominent senior member of the panel talked about how important it was to ‘be there,’ to get the mood of the place, to write from that perspective.

Just being there, however, doesn’t mean that you have greater access to “fact” or “Truth” than anyone else. Take McCain in Iraq. He goes on a CODEL. He meets with select troops, who are probably on their best behavior for the famous Senator. He meets with members of the Iraqi government, who probably ask him for stuff, hoping to work the levels of US political power. He tours a marketplace, with a brigade providing security. There’s no way he can get “out” to see the rest of the country, there’s no way he can meet with many of the forward deployed troops out on the FOB—a more representative sample is simply impossible for him. Its just too dangerous (and rightly, not worth the risk to him). Is it important that he goes? Sure. Does this mean that his assessment and evaluation of Iraq is fundamentally superior to Obama’s? Not really.

So, when McCain criticizes Obama, and when those in the “field” criticize those back at the desk, and those who played criticize those who haven’t, they have a very important point to make. Being there does shape and deepen your analysis about certain things in certain ways. But not everything, and not always in the most appropriate way. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you saw the whole picture while you were. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you paid attention to the things you later comment on as an expert. Just because you were “there” doesn’t mean that you are able to understand how “there” is now relevant “here.”

In the social sciences, we arbitrate these disputes with our methodology. We ask—what did you do while you were there, in the field? What did you read while sitting in your office? The methodology gives us a standard for what counts as enough knowledge about a thing or place on which to offer meaningful analysis.

In the campaign, it looks like we might have “We’re winning, can’t you see?” vs. “You were wrong then and you’re wrong now.”

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The role of al Qaeda of Iraq

Some of the remaining presidential candidates are this week debating the role of al Qaeda in Iraq. Senator John McCain points to AQI to justify his pro-war position, Senator Barack Obama points out that al Qaeda would not be in Iraq if the US hadn’t invaded. It was not in Iraq before the US invaded.

If the US abandoned Iraq, McCain says, then AQI would not just be “establishing a base.” No, he says, “they’d be taking a country.” President Bush has been making this same point for years — though the point is even more misleading now than it was then, when Bush was using this a justification first to attack Iraq and then to “stay the course.”

Steve Benen succinctly shoots down McCain’s point:

the reality is AQI has no real allies in Iraq. The Kurds have no use for them, the Shiite majority has no use for murderous Sunni jihadists running around their country, and Sunnis have been rising up against AQI since before the “surge” even began. If we left, al Qaeda would “take” Iraq? Not in this reality, it won’t.

Marc Lynch pointed this out as an argument against the case against withdrawal way back in mid-2006.

Time’s Joe Klein thinks McCain “knows” better than to make this argument, but is pushing this line of attack against Obama to appeal to the uninformed Republican base.

They’d be taking a country? Last time I checked, Iraq has a Shi’ite majority. McCain thinks the Shi’ites–the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps (and yes, the Iranians)–would allow a small group of Sunni extremists to take over? In fact, as noted above, the vast majority of indigenous Iraqi Sunnis aren’t too thrilled about the AQI presence in their country, either….The sadness here is that McCain knows better. He knows the complexities of the world, and the region. But I suspect he’s overplaying his Iraq hand in order to win favor with the wingnuts in his party.

Hmmm.

Maybe this calls for a quick examination of the thinking of some of the most eloquent war supporters. Let me take on two important claims in this debate.

1. First, hawks claim that Iraq will explode in new violence if the US departs. This will be according to al Qaeda’s plan.

Popular right-leaning blogger Engram argues that Iraq sectarian forces are currently aligned together against AQI, but worries that US withdrawal from Iraq would free AQI’s suicide bombers to again provoke civil war.

The Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds, together with 160,000 American soldiers are all united in an effort to quell al Qaeda’s suicide bombers, who remain very deadly. According to what fantasy can we simply withdraw American troops from Iraq and not have al Qaeda once again succeed in deliberately fanning the flames of sectarian violence? John McCain knows that Barack Obama does not have a sensible explanation.

For some time, Engram has been arguing that the situation in Iraq changed dramatically when al Qaeda bombed the Samarra mosque. AQI — particularly its “foreign fighters” — launched a campaign of suicide terror to provoke civil war, assure US withdrawal and presumably allow the eventual establishment of a Sunni Islamic state.

While Engram’s concerns are thoughtful, he fails to account for a number of realities:

First, the best research on suicide bombings demonstrates that it is a strategy uniquely situated to ending foreign occupation.

Pape is the director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, and has just published a book called Dying to Win, the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism….Pape says his research indicates that, every major suicide campaign has what he calls a secular and political goal, to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from areas the bombers view as their territory….He says the objective of compelling countries to withdraw military forces from territory the terrorists perceive as occupied has been the central goal of suicide campaigns in Lebanon, Israel, Sri Lanka and among separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya and the disputed region of Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan.

“Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to the presence of foreign military troops, that is mainly a response to the threat of foreign occupation, not Islamic fundamentalism,” he said. “This is a terribly important finding, because it means that the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies is only likely to increase suicide terrorists coming at us.”

If the US withdraws from Iraq, the underpinning logic supporting the suicide bomber strategy falls apart. Sadly, AQI has been able to recruit suicide bombers from throughout the region to expel the US — but who will be recruited for the more cynical strategic purpose of AQI? Even Engram acknowledges that the bombers themselves likely have very different goals than does al Qaeda strategists.

The bombers are anti-American occupation, not pro-civil war.

Likewise, Engram ignores the best evidence about civil war. As James Fearon and David Laitin of Stanford have explained, civil war is NOT a result of ethnic or religious conflict. Thus, Engram’s logic about AQI reigniting civil war is seriously flawed:

Rather, The factors that explain which countries have been at risk for civil war are not their ethnic or religious characteristics but rather the conditions that favor insurgency. These include poverty—which marks financially and bureaucratically weak states and also favors rebel recruitment—political instability, rough terrain, and large populations.

The US created a failed states in Iraq, a country geographically and demographically suited to civil war, which perhaps inevitably triggered internal war.

Moreover, Fearon’s research on civil war demonstrates that civil wars are typically not ended by temporary strategic moves by foreign allies. Fearon testified to Congress in September 2006, the US troop presence in Iraq is NOT contributing to long-term stability:

The historical record on civil war suggests that this strategy is highly unlikely to succeed, whether the US stays in Iraq for six more months or six more years (or more). Foreign troops and advisors can enforce power-sharing and limit violence while they are present, but it appears to be extremely difficult to change local beliefs that the national government can survive on its own while the foreigners are there in force. In a context of many factions and locally strong militias, mutual fears and temptations are likely to spiral into political disintegration and escalation of militia and insurgent-based conflict if and when we leave.

Thus, ramping up or “staying the course” amount to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success as the administration has defined it.

…Congress and the Bush administration have to ask what the long-run point is. The militia structures may recede, but they are not going to go away (absent some truly massive, many-decade effort to remake Iraqi society root and branch, which would almost surely fail). Given this, given myriad factions, and given the inability of Iraqi groups to credibly commit to any particular power- and oil-sharing agreement, ramping up or staying the course amount to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success.

Since Engram refuses to define the Iraqi conflict as a genuine civil war born of political instability and poverty, it is not surprising that he ignores this research in his writing.

2. McCain’s fellow war supporters are also claiming (again) that the 2002 presence of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq proves that al Qaeda had pre-war ties with Iraq. It was already part of their grand design.

I’ve debunked related claims many times before, when they were expressed by Vice President Cheney and President Bush.

Here’s Engram, repeating the point on Thursday

Zarqawi, the evil genius who later spearheaded al Qaeda’s incredibly successful campaign to incite sectarian violence, was in Iraq before the invasion.

Engram is somewhat agnostic as to exactly why Zarqawi was in Iraq.

Last night, on Bill Maher’s HBO show, writer Christopher Hitchens said that Zarqawi was in Iraq before the war and he “didn’t get in by accident.” I suppose these guys want the innuendo to speak for itself, eh?

How about letting Hitchens refute himself?

Hitchens, June 8, 2006:

Colin Powell was wrong to identify Zarqawi, in his now-notorious U.N. address, as a link between the Saddam regime and the Bin-Ladenists. The man’s power was created only by the coalition’s intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic.

While I think Hitchens mumbled “Baghdad” when talking about Zarqawi’s pre-war presence in Iraq, he was actually in the Kurdish area — practically an independent entity even before the war. The BBC:

He is believed to have fled to Iraq in 2001 after a US missile strike on his Afghan base, though the report that he lost a leg in the attack has not been verified.

US officials argue that it was at al-Qaeda’s behest that he moved to Iraq and established links with Ansar al-Islam – a group of Kurdish Islamists from the north of the country.

He is thought to have remained with them for a while – feeling at home in mountainous northern Iraq.

The Kurds have been informal US allies for more than 15 years — though some PKK membership (Turkey’s main enemy in Iraq this past week) is apparently aliged with Ansar al-Islam in the Kurdish region.

Sorry for the length of this post.

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Sage advice from the Prez

George W. Bush had this exchange at his press conference, February 28, 2008:

Q Mr. President, Turkey’s ground offensive in northern Iraq is now a week old with no end in sight. How quickly would you like to see Turkey end its offenses, its incursion? And do you have any concerns about the possibility of protracted presence in northern Iraq causing further destabilization in the region?

THE PRESIDENT: …I strongly agree with the sentiments of Secretary Gates, who said that the incursion must be limited, and must be temporary in nature. In other words, it shouldn’t be long-lasting. But the Turks need to move quickly, achieve their objective, and get out.

Q But how quickly, sir, do they need to move out?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, as quickly as possible.

Q Days or weeks?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, as possible.

Here’s John McCain on the US attack on Iraq, back in 2003:

“It will require a commitment to do what is necessary militarily, to deploy as many American forces for as long as it takes, to ignore the political calendar and to trust Iraqis with a greater degree of authority to manage their own affairs,” McCain said.

How long might it take? By 2008, McCain said that the US could spend “maybe 100” years in Iraq.

Of course, President Bush eventually expressed the same sentiment as McCain about Iraq: “as long as it takes.”

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Whack-a-mole?

Last August, Senator John McCain famously used the phrase “whack-a-mole” to describe and criticize the Pentagon’s “old” strategy in Iraq.

What I worry about is we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole here. We move troops, it [insurgency] flares up, we move troops there.

Based on that metaphor, McCain concluded that the US needed more troops in Iraq. The logic is simple: more US troops can whack more insurgent moles and reduce the places in Iraq safe for them to appear.

Putting more troops in Iraq also theoretically means creating larger-and-larger zones of security in Iraq. Indeed, McCain now defends President Bush’s troop “surge” as counter-insurgency strategy that could work. Potentially, the surge begins to implement the so-called “oil spot” strategy, which is named for the gradual expansion of safe spots on the map — winning the “hearts and mind” of local populations as it succeeds.

Is this realistic?

Well, to begin, McCain certainly isn’t the only — or first — person to describe the insurgency in Iraq as a whack-a-mole problem. Many foreign policy and military analysts employ the term and some argue that no strategy based simply on establishing small geographical security zones can work. Unless the US floods Iraq with troops, these skepitcs argue, insurgents can still too readily pop up almost anywhere else in Iraq.

Think of the obvious parallel. Hamid Karzai has long been considered merely the “mayor of Kabul” because that city is essentially the only secure part of Afghanistan — after five and a half years. There are too few troops in Afghanistan to accomplish much more.

Last September 6, ABC News’ Senior Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto blogged critically about what was then the latest Pentagon strategy in Iraq:

Operation Together Forward, the main thrust of the new strategy, involves establishing pockets of security in select neighborhoods and then slowly adding more. These latest numbers add substance to fears Together Forward creates a whack-a-mole effect: that is, secure one area and the violence will pop up somewhere else.

Sound familiar?

The latest “surge” strategy in Iraq, designed essentially to secure Baghdad neighborhoods, is built around the exact logic as last year’s failed strategy.

Does the latest Iraq strategy amount merely to an even grander version of whack-a-mole?

For answers to empirical questions about the war, I turn to the “Iraq Index,” produced by Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jason H. Campbell of the Brookings Institution.

The April 23, 2007, Iraq Index report includes a section entitled “EFFECTS OF OPERATION FARDH AL-QANOON ON AREAS OUTSIDE OF BAGHDAD AND AL-ANBAR PROVINCES” (caps in original):

There has been roughly a 30% increase in offensive actions and attacks in Diyala province (March 9, 2007)…Over the past five months, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops have increased 70% in Diyala province (April 16, 2007)

The Pentagon is responding by sending more troops to Diyala.

Is this a repeat of whack-a-mole?

Some journalists report that violence in Tal Afar is up as well.

Given this data, why is President Bush already claiming partial victory?

Yet the first indicators are beginning to emerge — and they show that so far, the operation is meeting expectations. There are still horrific attacks in Iraq, such as the bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday — but the direction of the fight is beginning to shift.

All of the data about the surge is tentative, of course, as even President Bush acknowledges. Iraq commander General David Petraeus told Bush “that it will be later this year before we can judge the potential of success.”

If the surge fails, don’t expect some better strategy down the road.

President Bush to interviewer Charlie Rose
, yesterday: “The Plan B is to make Plan A work.”

One early forecast: several hundred thousand US troops on the ground in Iraq.

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