Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 October 2004

Intelligence Does Matter

The political firestorm over intelligence supporting the war in Iraq may soon burn itself out. Two blue-ribbon reports—one on each side of the Atlantic—show how poor that intelligence really was. The Bush Administration insists that it did the best with what it got. It denies trying to influence, slant or spin the intelligence, far less to deceive.

But there are other, more important problems of intelligence in the Bush Administration. The English word “intelligence” has two meanings. We have all focused far too much on spying, and far too little on our leaders’ grey matter.

Of course the two meanings of “intelligence” are connected. You can’t get good intelligence from spying unless you are smart in how you spy. World War II showed us that. Our Navy won the crucial battle of Midway, despite the devastation of Pearl Harbor, in large part because of a clever trick. We had only partially broken the Japanese code, so we didn’t know where they would attack next. We aired open messages pretending that a water condenser on Midway had been broken. When we were able to decipher a coded Japanese message locating the “broken” condenser at the site the Japanese had code-named for their attack, we knew where they would go.

The British did more of the same in Europe. With a prodigious effort and rooms full of mathematicians, they were able not only to decipher the Germans’ battle codes but, by clever deception, to conceal that they had done so until the end of the War. In key battles, knowing the Germans’ plans nearly as soon as their troops did gave our allies a decisive edge.

Breaking the Germans’ codes and concealing success in doing so required tremendous investment, organization, discipline, and—most of all—brains. It took brains to understand that the Germans had developed a new mechanical device (before the advent of digital computers) to create hard-to-break codes. It took brains to realize that the machines’ codes could be broken. It took both brains and imagination to realize how important such a breakthrough would be and who could accomplish it, and so to organize that room full of mathematicians, keep them secret, and pay them secretly throughout the war. The British effort was comparable in size, scope, cost and secrecy to our Manhattan Project, which built the A-Bomb. All this became known to the public only recently, for the entire program had been classified for over a half-century.

Other evidence of our intelligence in World War II is better known. We Americans started and completed the Manhattan project, at great expense and effort. When the Japanese occupied Malaysia and cornered the world’s supply of rubber—a crucial raw material for war—we went to work on a crash basis and invented synthetic rubber. The government-run project in which we did so has been likened to the Manhattan Project in its scope, expense and success.

We and our British allies also created one of the greatest Potemkin armies of all time—a mighty force of inflatable rubber tanks and planes—to deceive the Germans into thinking that our great invasion would come at Calais and not at Normandy. The ruse worked and helped ensure our victory at Normandy while saving countless lives.

An objective look at the Second World War shows that we won because we were smarter than our enemies. We were not noticeably stronger, braver, or more productive. But we used our brains—the chief survival trait of our species—to better advantage.

Contrast this encouraging past with the recent history of the Iraq war. Forget for a moment whether invading Iraq was right or wrong. Just look at the conduct of the war after the first initial flush of victory. The public record reveals blunders in planning and execution that call into question the intelligence of our leaders in the second sense of that word.

The most important blunder was not recognizing that our initial rush to Baghdad was only a first step. Colin Powell and the State Department warned as much. So did General Shinseki. All were ignored. Just days before the invasion began, Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s then Foreign Minister, warned the world openly on international television. When American troops reached Saddam’s palace, he said, they would grab only smoke. His meaning was clear: Saddam’s army would not fight us directly but would melt away with their weapons and live to fight again at a time and place of their choosing. That is exactly what happened. The Administration failed to heed these explicit warnings from both inside and outside his government and therefore failed to plan effectively to win the peace.

After Baghdad fell, Iraqis looted virtually every institution of public importance in their nation. Not only did they loot the Iraqi National Museum. They also looted Iraq’s center for disease control, its national bank, virtually every ministry except the oil ministry, and innumerable water, power, and sewer facilities. In many cases (including, famously, the National Museum) heavily armed American troops were as close as across the street and did nothing to stop the looting. The unstopped looting destroyed the infrastructure of a civil society, created the conditions for chaos and disorder that still exist today, and began the long, slow process of turning the liberated, happy majority of Iraqis against the United States.

Questioned about our failure to stop the looting, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld quipped that the Iraqis were just enjoying their new-found liberty. That quip will go down not only as one of the cruelest jokes, but as one of the most outrageously and spectacularly stupid remarks of any leader in human history. It belongs in the same class as Marie Antoinette’s infamous jibe about peasants starving for lack of bread before the French Revolution: “Let them eat cake!”

The list goes on. Virtually every great general and wartime leader in human history has had one consistent piece of advice: “Know your enemy.” It is difficult to know your enemy when you don’t speak the enemy’s language. Yet Arabic translators are in very short supply. They are in such short supply that 120,000 tapes of intercepted Arabic telephone conversations lie untranslated, and therefore unused, inside the United States alone. Where have all our scarce Arabic translators been since Saddam’s statue fell? They’ve been hard at work in Iraq, not finding Saddamists and terrorists, but searching fruitlessly for weapons of mass destruction to justify the Bush Administration’s decision to invade.

The greatest blunder of all, however, is probably the “plan,” if there was one, for reconstructing Iraq. About 60% of Iraqi young men are unemployed. They have nothing to do and no way to make money. Saddamists and terrorists offer them $150 to fire rocket-propelled grenades at our troops or to plant improvised explosive devices in front of our convoys. No doubt some do it because of growing anti-American sentiment, but probably many do it just for the money. Yet the Bush Administration has done virtually nothing to hire Iraqis to rebuild their own country. Instead, the money is going to Haliburton, which has yet to make a visible start on reconstruction after eighteen months.

Remember the $600 million in cash that our troops found in one of Saddam’s palaces? It could have been used, right on the spot, to put Iraqis to work rebuilding their own devastated infrastructure. The symbolic value of such a gesture, let alone its jump-start to the Iraqi economy, would have been tremendous. Did the Bush Administration even think of doing this? No.

That $600 million also could have been used, right away, for another crucial purpose. The Russians built most of Iraq’s electrical grid and much of its water and power infrastructure during the Cold War. Russian equipment is incompatible with the stuff that American companies like Haliburton eventually plan to supply. When Iraqis looted Iraq’s infrastructure, they took every piece of equipment that could be stolen and sold, in some cases down to wires, nuts, bolts and conduits. That left two options for reconstruction: (1) getting the old Russian equipment back, or (2) rebuilding the entire infrastructure from scratch.

The Bush Administration could have used the $600 million windfall, or some of our own money, to get the old Russian equipment back in place. It could have offered an amnesty to the looters, most of whom were just ordinary Iraqis trying to find a means to support their families in uncertain times. It could have offered to pay for looted parts, no questions asked, if reinstalled in working condition within, say, thirty days. Instead, the Administration chose to go it alone, rely on Haliburton, and rebuild the infrastructure from scratch. The result is that the lights, water and sewage in Baghdad still don’t work eighteen months after Saddam’s statue fell, and otherwise neutral or friendly Iraqis hate us for it.

The Bush Administration’s missteps and missed opportunities in Iraq go on and on. The blunder of entirely dissolving, instead of “thinning,” the Iraqi army is well known and widely discussed. The new Iraqi government is in the process of reversing that policy, but far too late. The window for easy pacification closed long ago.

Equally apparent is the blunder of relying too much on long-time exiles for intelligence, political guidance, and even political governance. That blunder is again in the process of reversal, but again far too late. Yet another blunder was leaving Iraq’s borders so porous as to allow any jihadi with a thumb for hitchhiking to enter and cause trouble.

These blunders are far from isolated mistakes. They are consistent and interrelated, and they compound each other. We could have “vetted” the Iraqi military and separated friend from foe a lot more easily using the translators assigned to the fruitless search for WMD. Which was more important, winning the peace or justifying the invasion? Security provided by a “thinned” Iraqi army could have allowed the rebuilding process to get a much quicker start. That, in turn, could have provided a boost for the Iraqi economy and productive jobs for the youth who are now shooting at us. And so it went: blunder after compounding blunder.

The picture of these interlocking and compounding blunders makes one thing crystal clear. There was no coherent, intelligent leadership from the top. The pieces of the puzzle did not, and still do not, fit together into a coherent plan. Making policy coherent, realistic and effective is the job of a leader, especially the top leader. As Harry Truman proudly confessed, pointing to his presidential desk, “The buck stops here.” A smart president could have and would have avoided these stupid blunders.

It would be better, of course, if President Bush could credibly claim that he had, like any good manager, hired smart people to work for him. He does have a few smart folk, but he doesn’t listen to them. Colin Powell warned him beforehand of exactly what was going to happen in Iraq; Powell was right. Condoleeza Rice tried to convince him that the larger “war on terror” is a war to win hearts and minds. Yet Bush has marginalized both Powell and Rice.

Bush does listen to Rumsfeld and Cheney, but there’s the rub. Not only has Rumsfeld horribly mismanaged war in Iraq since Saddam’s statue fell. He has done more harm to our cause in Iraq and the world with his mouth than many fighting against us have done with their weapons. Remember his wartime press conferences? Remember how he insulted the intelligence of friend, foe and news media alike by saying virtually nothing, at great length, in a variety of aggressive and sarcastic ways? Remember his remark about the looting? Remember his disparaging our NATO allies as “Old Europe”? Rumsfeld the anti-diplomat has given America just the sort of aggressive, selfish, sarcastic and arrogant face that emboldens our enemies and pushes our allies away.

Before war came, Rumsfeld had done a good job strategically modernizing our military. But that was a desk job for an ivory-tower thinker. When war came, events proved Rumsfeld a miserable tactician and an abysmal wartime spokesman. He made the classic error of all arrogant political leaders: thinking he is smarter than his generals. Any president with an ounce of common sense would have fired or at least muzzled and marginalized him shortly after Saddam’s statue fell. But Rumsfeld remains our Secretary of Defense, responsible for winning a war that his arrogance, stubbornness and spectacular blunders have already dragged from the high road of victory to the low road toward defeat.

Then there’s Dick Cheney, who seems to have the President’s ear on all matters, foreign and domestic. Cheney famously declared that Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. Doesn’t he remember the 18% interest rates in the eighties? Even members of Bush’s own Administration, let alone his party, worry about the gargantuan deficits that Bush’s inattention to budgetary detail have laid on the back of our children.

Finally, there’s George Tenet. His remark that Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” is one of the greatest bloopers in the history of espionage. We had three years since September 11 to build up human intelligence in Iraq and the Islamic world. Yet for three years after September 11, Tenet did virtually nothing to reform our nation’s woefully inadequate intelligence but protect his own behind and those of his immediate underlings. Effective foreign spy agencies like Russia’s FSB (the successor to the KGB) and Israel’s Mossad must alternately laugh and cry.

The astounding thing is how quickly we forget. Bush’s intellect (or lack of it) was a signal issue in the 2000 campaign. Commentators then wondered, even in peacetime, whether he could escape the stigma of a “dim bulb.” Yet somehow, over the course of the last three years, the public and the media seem to have gotten used to a president who can’t express a coherent thought longer than a bumper sticker and can’t seem to make decisions without driving us deeper and deeper into global economic, military and political trouble.

Smart presidents hire and heed people smarter than themselves. They also obtain information from numerous sources. Franklin Roosevelt consulted hundreds of people from all levels of government, in part to make sure those immediately below him were telling him the truth and giving him good advice. So did Lincoln. Bush, on the other hand, relies exclusively on a narrow and secretive circle of confidants, and that circle appears to be growing still smaller under the pressure of well-deserved criticism. As his administration circles its wagons, our nation’s future falls more and more into the hands of two aging, arrogant, stubborn men whose time (if it ever existed) has long ago come and gone.

Brains, realism, imagination and flexibility matter now more than ever, for the real storm clouds are gathering. Iran’s mullahs want nuclear weapons, and no one has an effective plan to stop them. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and its friendly government hangs by a thread over a sea of Islamic extremism. North Korea has nuclear weapons and a history of selling whatever it has to the highest bidder. Ninety-five percent of containers reaching our shores are uninspected. This means that a nuclear weapon hidden in one of those containers now has nineteen-to-one odds of reaching its target, probably Washington, D.C. or New York City.

No “Star Wars” missile shield—even if it works—will save us from the threat of smuggled nukes. Nor will “steadfastness” in blundering tactics, faith in God, or utopian visions of worldwide democracy. Not even complete victory in Iraq will assure us safety from smuggled nukes and other WMD. Only our own intelligence, realism, tactical cleverness, and imagination can save us. President Bush and his team have shown over and over again, in word and deed, that they lack those qualities. To re-elect an amiable bumbler as president under these circumstances might be the most fatefully tragic mistake “we the people” could make.

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It is late October 2007. President Bush, who narrowly won re-election in 2004, is about to call up the first of 100,000 newly recruited regular-army troops for duty in Iraq. The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden are still unknown. But it’s a sunny and crisp fall day in Washington, D.C., and our nation’s government is hard and happily at work. The Supreme Court and Congress are in session, and the White House and Pentagon are busily planning how best to use those 100,000 new troops.

At 9:50 a.m. on this sunny day, a blinding flash emanates from somewhere on Capitol Hill. The Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House are instantly vaporized. After the radioactive dust settles on the streets and buildings of Washington, all that remains of Capitol Hill is a gigantic crater.

Because the nuclear weapon was smuggled in on the ground, the destruction is not as great as an airborne weapon would have caused. The Pentagon is in flames and heavily damaged, but some of the people working in it survived. All are badly burned by heat or radiation, however, and most will not survive for long. Much of the former CIA headquarters in Langley also survived, as did many of its personnel.

Our nation’s leadership is decimated. The President and Vice President have vanished without a trace. So have nearly all of Congress and the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. So has the Secretary of State, who had been testifying before Congress. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., California), who became Speaker of the House after the 2006 congressional elections, is the only person remaining in the constitutional line of succession. She survived only because she was in California visiting her family.

Although there is no Supreme Court Justice left to swear her in, Rep. Pelosi is in an unmarked military jet on her way to Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. There she will join the surviving military and political leaders and be sworn in as President. While on her way, she receives a call from surviving military leaders asking her to authorize immediate, massive thermonuclear counterstrikes against Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan—all probable sources of the smuggled nuke. She also receives reports that Pakistan and North Korea, each of which possess crude but serviceable intercontinental ballistic missiles, have threatened immediate nuclear retaliation for any strike. Russia and China also have warned against any action that might produce radioactive fallout over their territory. The fate of the our nation, and possibly of the human species, depends upon Rep. Pelosi’s decision. Surviving military and political leaders expect her to make that decision within hours after arriving at Cheyenne Mountain.

Sound like a paranoid fantasy? Think again. Back here in 2004, while we are arguing about the past intent of one already captured despot, the mullahs in Iran are collecting equipment to concentrate the uranium isotope that they need for nuclear weapons. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and its friendly government hangs by a thread over a sea of Islamic extremism. North Korea has nuclear weapons and a history of selling whatever it has to the highest bidder.

Three years after September 11, over 95% of the shipping containers entering our ports are still uninspected. What does this dry statistic mean? It means that a container with a timed nuclear weapon entering our country has a nineteen-to-one chance of reaching its target. If Al-Qaeda gets its hands on a nuclear weapon and can buy, steal or commandeer a cargo vessel, there is a nineteen-to-one chance that Washington, D.C., or New York will be vaporized.

We face no greater threat, and there should be no higher priority than that. Next to the risk of nuclear incineration of a major city, the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan, and even the hunt for bin Laden pale into insignificance. Yet what did President Bush say when reminded of his administrations’s failure to deal with this problem in the presidential debates? He said we don’t have enough money. For the spectacular stupidity of that remark alone, he deserves to be retired from office.

Among the many things that President Bush does not understand is history. Over a millennium and a half ago, a barbarian king named Alaric was gathering troops and followers east of Rome. Roman troops were off somewhere in southern Europe, not guarding the homeland. Alaric knew he could never defeat the might of the Roman Empire. He also knew that the Roman troops would return, but he seized his chance. His forces sacked Rome and then abandoned the ruined city.

Alaric died of disease a short while later, and his people dispersed. But he had achieved immortality of a sort. The blow he struck, sacking the “Eternal City”, had begun extinguishing human history’s then brightest light in government, engineering, equality, and democracy. A millennium of darkness and despotism followed, from which the Western world did not really emerge until the Industrial Age.

This is what is at stake in the so-called “war on terror.” It is nothing less than the future of democracy and possibly the survival of mankind. How would we respond to the nuclear destruction of Washington or New York? Would we strike out and incinerate Iran? North Korea? the part of Pakistan where bin Laden is hiding? We certainly have the power to do so, and American popular opinion might well demand immediate and unthinking revenge. Then would others respond in kind? Would limited or total nuclear war follow? Would a new Dark Age ensue?

The risk of nuclear conflict has never been so great and so real since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The difference is that our adversaries are no longer cautious, conservative, and war-weary leaders like Nikita Khrushchev. Despite his bluster, Khrushchev had seen the devastation of his country in World War II and had learned well. Instead, we are now up against unpredictable fanatics and despots like bin Laden, Kim Jong Il, the mullahs of Iran, and Zarqawi, who profess to delight and glory in war and chaos.

Al Qaeda does not have nuclear weapons now, and there are barriers to its getting them any time soon. But time is not on our side. The Bush Administration has wasted three years already, and the storm clouds are gathering.

Above all others this threat should be our greatest priority. Neither biological nor chemical weapons can vaporize our political leadership and seat of government, or our chief commercial city, in an instant. This threat deserves the same kind of zealous attention, communal sacrifice and focused intelligence that we gave to the Manhattan Project, the invention of synthetic rubber, and preparation for D-Day in World War II.

Every political leader, general, spy, scientist, customs official, airline executive, shipowner, sailor, airport worker and airplane pilot with relevant work or expertise should be focusing on this problem 24 hours a day until it is solved. It is that important. Cost should be no object, because the cost of failure is at best a new Dark Age, at worst the end of humankind. Senator Kerry seems to understand this point; President Bush does not. Bush’s failure of imagination and leadership on this—by far the most important lesson to emerge from the tragedy of September 11—proves him incompetent to be our president.

Rome fell, and the Western world languished in darkness for a millennium, because those in charge did not have their eye on the ball. The Bush team has done little in three years to deal with the real threat to us and to the world. It has resisted every intelligent effort to protect our homeland, from formation of the Department of Homeland Security, through creation of the 9/11 Commission, to real reformation of our intelligence services. It has done virtually nothing to address the threat of nuclear terrorism that we face.

The war in Iraq, to which we have devoted so much blood and treasure, does not address the nuclear threat because Iraq did not have nuclear weapons or the ability to produce them. Nor does it have nuclear material or technology. North Korea and Pakistan (which may not always remain our friend) have the weapons, and Iran seems hell bent on acquiring the ability to make them. Other rogue nations may join the club in the not-too-distant future.

The Bush Administration’s expensive “Star Wars” nuclear-missile shield will be useless—even if it works— against a nuke smuggled by land or by sea or on a passenger or cargo airplane. So will blundering tactics in Iraq, faith in God, and utopian visions of worldwide democracy. If Washington or New York falls to a smuggled nuke, future historians—if there are any—will recount how the Bush Administration took its eye of the ball. No doubt they will liken Bush to Roman leaders in the time of Alaric, with their troops in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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16 October 2004

Father Knows Best, or Does He?

One of the most astounding statistics from the Cold War and its aftermath reflects Russians' continuing love for Stalin. Over half a century has passed since Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s critique of his reign of terror deep in the Soviet Plenum. The KGB’s files were open, at least for a time, and the vile secrets of Stalin’s inconceivably bestial regime are well known. Yet survey after survey, at least during the nineties, showed 70% of the Russian people still revered Stalin as a “strong leader” who “saved Russia.”

What is so astonishing about this statistic is that the facts suggest just the opposite. Soviet Russia beat Hitler on the Eastern Front and survived despite Stalin, not because of him. It was the courage, effort and incalculable sacrifice of the Russian people that saved Russia. Stalin’s paranoid policies, programs and decisions only hindered their efforts and prolonged their sacrifice and suffering. Many of Stalin’s decisions could not have been more brutal and stupid had Ivan the Terrible made them half a millennium before.

Not only did Stalin make it easy for Hitler to invade Russia by destroying the Polish officer corps before the war, decimating the Ukraine, and generally weakening every political social and military power west of Moscow. He sapped the Russian people’s strength and will by starving them, purging them, imprisoning them, killing them, and squandering their lives on one of the world’s cruelest forced-labor public-works programs since the Pharaohs built the Pyramids. He deported virtually every concentrated non-Russian ethnic group inside the Soviet Union, many of which, if properly motivated, would have been happy to fight Hitler’s troops. He second-guessed his generals, sidelined his best general (Zhukov) until it was almost too late, and then, when the Nazis were at his doorstep in Moscow, prepared to flee to the Urals to save his own skin. Stalin stopped his flight only after his generals and commissars told him that, if he fled, the Russian front would collapse.

Stalin famously said that the greatest human feeling is not love, but revenge. He lived that ethic, killing, torturing and imprisoning thousands or real and imagined enemies, some of whom were the best and brightest minds in Russia. The great aircraft designer Tupolev and his entire crew worked in a prison in Moscow for several years at the height of the war, designing military planes under the watchful eye of commissars reporting directly to Stalin. Their every thought, meeting, plan, drawing, and procurement request was subject to political review for any hint of treason or disloyalty. Can you imagine any more inefficient way to design aircraft? But Tupolev, like the Russian people, somehow persevered and designed decent aircraft from prison, despite the impossible conditions that Stalin’s paranoia imposed.

Stalin’s deathbed was a metaphor for his life. A radio broadcast in Moscow in the mid-nineties described the scene, as reported by eyewitnesses. Stalin lay in his bed with his advisors and personal physician clustered at a distance. The room filled with fear. All quaked at the thought that Stalin, with a word or gesture, might condemn them to prison or death if, in his paranoia, he blamed them for the state of his health or anything wrong in Russia. The very doctors who treated him feared condemnation for the fact that Stalin, despite their best efforts, was dying.

As Stalin died, his hand slowly rose as if to point out a traitor, and all quaked with fear. Only as his last breath expired did the reluctantly assembled doctors, advisors, and confidants breath something like a sigh of relief. This had been the monster that Russians believe saved their country from Fascism.

What lessons does this tragic history have for Americans? It demonstrates the inexplicable power and danger of unthinking popular bonding with leaders in times of peril.

Stalin, or course, is an extreme case. There is little doubt today, outside of Russia, that he was one of the worst leaders in human history. From whatever perspective he is judged—military, political, educational, scientific, commercial, industrial, or legal— little that he did survives critical scrutiny. In the end, his legacy was death, suffering, misery, fear, lies, backwardness, and incompetence for Russia. Yet nearly three-quarters of Russians revere him as their savior.

That is a riddle of the human psyche that deserves long and careful study. The Russians are among the best-read people on the planet, and they have been rightly obsessed with their terrible losses in what they call the “Great Patriotic War.” It is simply inconceivable that so many Russians, well into the nineties, did not know the truth about Stalin. Much more likely, they simply could not accept the truth when told. Some deep psychological “bonding” with their leader displaced their critical faculties, not just for the moment, but for the rest of their lives. For them, “Father knows best” became not just an admonition for children, but a life-long state of mind.

Wartime Russians, we may assume, knew far, far less about the conduct of their government then than we know about ours now. The Soviet propaganda machine made sure that Soviet citizens knew all about the Red Army’s successes and victories, and little about its failures. In contrast, we live in a free country, and our press has so much better technology and coverage today than it did in wartime Russia.

Yet the bonding of Russians to their wartime leader—one of the worst in world history—was strong enough to overcome their later knowledge of his unprecedented reign of terror. It was strong enough to induce them to continue to revere him for decades after the truth became known. If the force of psychological bonding with a leader in times of war was strong enough to cause Soviet citizens to suspend judgment about a despicable tyrant for several decades, then it might well be strong enough to induce citizens of a democracy to suspend critical judgment of an ordinary leader in extraordinary times.

I hasten to say that I am not comparing President Bush to Stalin. That comparison would be ridiculous. Any informed American, myself included, would a thousand times rather live under Bush than under Stalin. One would have to be insane to think otherwise. What begs comparison is the behavior of Russian and American citizens, under the stress of wartime conditions, in assessing and judging their respective leaders. The issue is whether a citizen’s instinct to follow the leader overcomes critical judgment.

According to polls, many Americans support President Bush as a “strong leader” who is “consistent” and “steadfast.” They seem to think it enough that he is our leader, is on our side, will not give in, and wants us to win. Yet Soviet citizens could have said the very same things—with complete truth—about Stalin during World War II.

Soviet citizens might be excused for taking such a shallow view of things. They had no choice in their leader; merely to question Stalin was to court imprisonment, torture or death. Furthermore, wartime Soviet citizens had virtually no relevant information about what was going on; all that they read and saw was carefully concocted Soviet propaganda.

In contrast, we Americans have a choice. We also have all the information we need to make an intelligent judgment who should lead us in these perilous times. Unlike wartime Soviet citizens, we can determine our own future. And we can change leaders if we find that one is not performing well.

This is a grave responsibility, and it requires more than an instinctual response. We can and should evaluate and judge each candidate, his character, his background, and, in particular, his record of success and failure. If we do not, if we stick with the President simply because he is our “leader” and is “strong,” then we will have allowed the instinctual process of bonding to subvert our democracy. In the process, we will have reduced our critical faculty to that of animals blindly following an alpha male. If that happens, we Americans will have surrendered intelligent choice to instinct and ultimately may fare no better than the Russians who continue to admire Stalin to this day.

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08 October 2004

Why Are we Still in Iraq?

In all the puerile bickering about Iraq, one thing is crystal clear and virtually forgotten. The most compelling reason for invading Iraq was getting rid of Saddam Hussein. His was the face of evil that motivated national approval for the invasion and the heroism of our soldiers in battle.

As 2004 draws to a close, Saddam Hussein is gone. He sits in a prison under U.S. control. His vile sons are dead. Neither he nor they can ever again threaten the Iraqi people, Iraq’s neighbors, or stability in the Mideast. Saddam’s regime is history.

So why are we still there? President Bush, who has never been the brightest bulb in the American political marquee, seems to insist that Saddam’s capture is just one more reason for “staying the course.” Excuse me, but wasn’t getting rid of Saddam our mission in Iraq? If so, then what “course” is left to “stay”? Isn’t it time to declare “mission accomplished” and go home? The President was premature in speaking before a banner bearing those words in May 2003, but they certainly have the ring of truth now.

During the Clinton Administration, we had a term for failing to stick to stated objectives for military action. It was called “mission creep”—political jargon for failing to keep one’s eye on the ball, sometimes with disastrous consequences. We’ve achieved our principal objective, so why are we still there?

President Bush now says the “mission” is making Iraq a democratic society, mainly by force. Let’s leave aside Candidate Bush’s campaign promise in 2000 for a “humbler” foreign policy and an end to “nation building.” Maybe 9/11 did change everything, including Candidate Bush’s entire philosophical approach to foreign policy.

Even so, there are three problems with this new mission. First, it was not how the President sold the war to Congress and to the American people. If he had come to Congress in early 2003 and said, “We are going to invade Iraq to make it into a model Islamic democracy to reform the Mideast and set an example for the world,” he would have been laughed off Capitol Hill. And rightly so.

Second, any student of history, even a “C” student, knows that one does not “impose” democracy by force of arms on societies that have never known it—certainly not a society as bitterly divided on religious, ethnic and political lines as Iraq. The British experience in India and Pakistan teaches that democracy may not arrive until decades after an occupying force leaves the scene, even if the occupying force is as enlightened and disciplined as were the British. And Pakistan still has not achieved real democracy more than half a century after the British left. To our chagrin and the world’s serious risk, President Musharraf’s government, with its nuclear weapons, hangs by the thread of his security forces over an ocean of Islamic extremism.

Contrary to the Neocons’ shallow arguments, the aftermath of World War II was no exception to this general rule. Germany had known democracy well before the Nazis destroyed it, and the German people were deathly tired of war, violence and totalitarianism. Japan had never really been a democracy in the Western sense, but it had been a stable, orderly, law-abiding society having some acquaintance with democracy and absolute obedience to its Emperor. The American occupation brilliantly exploited these unique traits of Japanese culture to instill democracy in a defeated, congenitally orderly people with no tradition of small-scale civil resistance. The situation in Iraq today is far, far from that of either post-War Germany or Japan.

In Iraq today, as in most cases, “imposed democracy” is an oxymoron. If the Iraqis want real democracy, they will have to bargain, struggle and fight for it, just as have all other people that have achieved it on their own. There is little evidence, so far, that the so-called “people” of “Iraq” are willing to do so in general, far less with Americans calling the shots and inadvertently violating local cultural norms every day.

There’s a good reason for this unwillingness: the very notion of the “Iraqi people” is a fiction. Iraq as a nation was an invention of the British Foreign Office, designed to divide and conquer an unruly and difficult population by putting three warring ethic groups (plus a few smaller oppressed minorities) in the same national basket. It was a bad idea when conceived, and it is a worse idea now. That’s the third and final reason why President Bush’s “mission creep” is unfortunate.

If stable self-rule in “Iraq” is really our goal, there is a simple three-state solution to achieve it—a solution that would not demand much more sacrifice of our blood and treasure. First, let the Iraqi Kurds be free. They already have a splendid democracy, and they’ve shown they can fight quite well for their liberty, thank you. In everything but name, they are already a separate small nation, relatively stable and well governed.

Second, let the Shia in the South be free, too. Morally, we owe it to them. To our everlasting national shame, the first Bush Administration betrayed them, allowing Saddam to butcher hundreds of thousands in our collective name. But freedom for the Shia is not just a matter of moral necessity; it is also a matter of practical realpolitik. No mullah more moderate and reasonable than Imam Sistani has appeared in the Mideast since Iran first became a theocracy, and none is likely to do so in the foreseeable future. If we can’t trust him and the remaining secular Shiites to create a moderate, democratic Shiite state (although perhaps a bit more Islamist that we would like), then we really don’t want democracy in the Shiite world after all. Imam Sistani and his followers are the last best hope to avoid an ultimate replay of Iran in Shiite Iraq. We should act before he grows too old or is assassinated.

Finally, we should deal with the fractious and dangerous Sunni heartland as we have done so effectively for the last thirteen years. We should isolate and contain it by means of diplomatic action, air power, and two free and well-armed neighbors, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi Shiite Republic. We could achieve these objectives by arming and training the Kurds and Shia, using our air power and a new “no-fly zone” (with few casualties) to prevent any large-scale military action, and using diplomatic action and political and economic pressure to minimize any ethnic cleansing that might ensue in the new states. (Would limited, orderly ethnic flight be worse than full-scale civil war, replete with the inevitable ethnic atrocities?) With some cooperation from our new, independent Kurdish and Shiite friends and neighboring states, we might even seal the borders around Sunniland and stem the flow of terrorists in and out.

Is anyone even discussing a three-state solution? Hardly. We are still trying senselessly to glue together three permanently inimical factions with American blood. Sure, the Turks would object to a free Iraqi Kurdistan, but since when have the selfish aims of Turkish foreign policy justified a monumental loss of American blood and treasure? Far better to bully the Turks, perhaps with a NATO guarantee of the territorial integrity of Turkey, if necessary, than to stay mired in what is already a low-level Iraqi civil war for another decade or two.

The three-state solution is hardly risk free. Yet it offers a realistic chance of providing a stable and self-governed “Iraq” (or most of it) in the near term (if “Iraq” has ever been a real nation except under the heel of a dictator.) More important, it gives the Kurds and Shiites real, immediate and tangible stakes in fighting hard for stability (with American arms) on their own. The fact that no one—Republican or Democrat—has so much as proposed such a practical solution can mean only one thing: that local self-rule is not our real objective in Iraq.

So why are we still there? There is only one answer that makes sense: oil. This does not mean, as some have foolishly charged, that we intend to steal the oil, whether by force or guile. Of course not. We have every intention—and every ability—to pay for every drop of oil at market prices. So does the rest of the developed world. More than anything, we are Yankee traders, and we expect to pay for what we get. What we and the rest of the developed world want is a stable and reliable source of supply at market prices. No one really cares who gets the proceeds or how high the price, as long as it’s based on the market.

Yet the economic importance of a stable supply can hardly be exaggerated. Iraq and Saudi Arabia today have nearly one-quarter of the world’s total oil reserves and an even greater share of current production. You don’t have to be an economist to understand that, with the present uneasy balance of worldwide supply and demand, a loss of one-quarter of total supply (or any substantial fraction of one-quarter) would cause oil prices to go through the roof. If Iraqi and Saudi resources were totally disabled, even temporarily, oil prices would probably double or triple.

Whatever one thinks about President Bush, Haliburton, and a national economy stupidly reliant on foreign oil, this is undeniable economic reality today. As the world’s and our own economies are presently configured, a significant disruption in Iraqi and Saudi oil supply would cause massive pain and hardship in developed nations and poverty, panic, and conflict in developing ones. Whether arising from destruction of the oil fields by sabotage, war or revolution or from pricing by an Islamic theocracy rather than market forces (what does the Koran say about oil prices for “infidels”?), the result might be worldwide economic dislocation on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. The risk of this happening is a real, live problem that no prudent policy maker can ignore.

For a whole host of (mostly valid) political, religious and practical reasons, Saudi Arabia does not want our soldiers in its Kingdom. Kuwait is too small, too far from the oil fields, and too riven with terrorists to be of much help. You can’t hide a hundred thousand troops in Dubai or Qatar, and they, too, are too far away. So we have some 140,000 troops in Iraq, within striking distance of the Iraqi and Saudi oil fields, to make sure the oil keeps flowing.

That is the real reason why we are still in Iraq now that Saddam is gone. The plan of both presidential candidates seems to be: let “Iraqi” forces fight their way to a semblance of stability, and keep our forces in relatively safe garrisons in the hinterlands, ready for use if the world’s supply of oil is threatened. (Senator John Kerry promises “no permanent designs” on Iraq, but he would likely see the necessity of these same measures after assuming office.)

Our forces must be close by because, as both Gulf Wars have shown, a massive military buildup from overseas takes about two months at a minimum. If the Saudi/Iraqi oil tap were turned off suddenly, the world’s economy could easily spin into a deep depression in the time it took to move forces into the region. The same rationale motivates our nation’s strategic oil reserve. Without it, and without rationing, private reserves of oil might evaporate so quickly that we might not even have the fuel to supply our armed forces as they tried to secure the threatened oil fields. (Remember, over 50% of our oil supplies come from abroad.)

So why is no one talking about these very real issues? There are several reasons. First, keeping unwanted troops in a foreign country is inconsistent with America’s self-image as a law-abiding, benevolent democracy. Never mind that most of the rest of the world, if it thought deeply enough about it, would thank whatever god they pray to that American troops are there. (This goes especially for China and most of Asia, which depend on foreign oil for the continuation of their “economic miracles.”) We Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as keeping troops in a foreign land, where they’re not wanted, for such mundane purpose as insuring the flow of crude oil to the world. And we certainly don’t like to think of the flower of our youth cut down in their prime for essentially commercial purposes, even if vital to the world’s economy.

More important, open discussion of this purpose would have several unfortunate international effects. First, by confirming radical Islamic suspicions about America’s intentions, it would embolden Islamic terrorists and revolutionaries worldwide, particularly in the Mideast. That effect might lead to the very sabotage, instability and revolution that presence of our troops is designed to deter or prevent. Second, open discussion of how vulnerable the whole world’s economy is to such things as a Wahhabi revolution in Saudi Arabia might cause a “race to the bottom” in diplomacy. States around the world might curry favor with Islamic extremists in the hope of receiving a preferred position in the pecking order as extremist doctrine and opportunistic alliances replaced the market as a basis for allocating oil. Finally, open discussion of just how easy it might be to hold the world’s economy hostage might vastly increase the level of terrorism and sabotage in Saudi Arabia, as well as Iraq.

Yet however rational our “Iraq garrison” plan may seem from the standpoint of abstract realpolitik, it is not a durable solution to Islamic extremism or other threats to the world’s oil supply. As the present war in Iraq so well shows, it is far easier to sabotage the oil infrastructure than to protect it. Guarding the entire Saudi/Iraqi oil infrastructure from the type of concerted campaign of sabotage that we now see in Iraq—let alone from the threat of fundamentalist revolution in which a large fraction of the population enthusiastically participates—would probably take half a million troops. Unless we are ready to make the kind of sacrifice and endure the kind of internal division that we suffered during the War in Vietnam, it is unlikely that we Americans would be able to sustain that sort of effort for more than a year or two, if at all. What the Bush Administration apparently has in mind in Iraq is, at best, no more than a temporary holding action in the ceaseless struggle with the chronic instability that is the Middle East.

So what would a durable solution look like? Should we work to develop a worldwide coalition to occupy and stabilize the Saudi/Iraqi oilfields, operate them as a protectorate of the developed world, and hold the proceeds in trust for whatever legitimate local governments emerge from the inevitable turmoil? The cost in blood and treasure would be great, even if shared worldwide, and the risk of yet another millennial struggle between Muslims and “infidels” would be palpable. The result might be a Hundred Years War justified by economics on the one hand and religion on the other, with increasing risk of nuclear exchanges as technology in the Islamic world inevitably develops. Hardly a pretty picture.

The only viable alternative is for the developed world to wean itself from Saudi/Iraqi oil as quickly, cheaply and permanently as possible. This is the reason for all the fuss about Russian oil and Russian pipelines to the west and east. Happily, Russia’s oil resources may have been grossly underestimated. Yet with world oil demand rapidly rising, oil is a dwindling resource, even in Russia, and we cannot predict what Russia will do or become after Putin.

The only really durable solution for us is alternative sources of energy. France now generates 77% of it electricity from nuclear energy, the United States about 21%. This simple fact helps explain much of the disagreement between France and the United States over the necessity and wisdom of the war in Iraq. France has been more prescient and more wise than we in weaning itself from the highly vulnerable Saudi/Iraqi tit. (Inexplicably, at this very moment in history, France is reconsidering its reliance on nuclear energy, perhaps because of the risk of terrorism.) France is not alone. In Japan, about 35% of electric power comes from splitting atoms. Neither country has had a serious nuclear accident, although each has had minor mishaps.

Besides nuclear energy, there is coal. Current estimates suggest that the United States’ own internal coal reserves could supply the nation’s total energy needs for two centuries. Two centuries is ample time to develop new sources of energy, such as nuclear fusion, the efficient use of solar energy, or practical use of renewable resources.

Whether its source is the atom or coal, electricity can solve the problem of transportation. Oil is simply not essential for our transportation needs, now or in the future. Used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, electric power can supply unlimited quantities of hydrogen—a clean, nonpolluting fuel to which today’s internal combustion engines can be adapted easily . The technology for doing so is all available today, now, off the shelf. Its only disadvantage is that, at present prices, it is more expensive than refining “cheap” Saudi oil into gasoline. If the Mideast oil fields are overrun, that price comparison may change more rapidly than anyone might have guessed.

So here is the essential problem. We don’t need to invent practicable nuclear fusion, fuel cells, or solar energy. We don’t need to rely solely on existing sources of “green” or renewable power, when doing so would require cutting our energy usage by an order of magnitude. All we need is the leadership and political will to create an electrical-hydrogen energy economy, using presently available nuclear or coal technology (or both), as tested and tried, with suitable safety and environmental precautions.

Converting to such an economy would not be easy, although all the necessary technology is available and tested today. There would be (as there are today) difficult disputes over the disposal of nuclear waste, the level of nuclear safety, and the amount to be spent to avoid or mitigate air and water pollution from burning coal or converting it to oil or gas. Even with a massive, well-led national effort, converting to a hydrogen economy would take at least ten to fifteen years, and the resulting energy would be more expensive than “cheap” foreign oil is today.

But what is the alternative? To remain dependent upon a limited resource, sought by the whole world, of which a significant share comes from the most unstable and dangerous spots on the globe. To expend fruitlessly in blood and conflict what we could invest in our own national, independent energy infrastructure. That is, to remain in Iraq (or somewhere else in the Mideast) for the foreseeable future, at literally incalculable cost and risk. To watch helplessly as we drain the lifeblood of our youth, squander our national prestige and honor, and coarsen our international relations with war and bullying—all to squeeze out what’s left of the oil in a region beset by extremists with thousand-year-old grudges against the West.

So whenever we ask, “Why are we still in Iraq?” the alternative of a hydrogen economy ought to leap to mind. Not only is conversion feasible with present-day off-the-shelf technology. Converting would put the entire nation to work, here at home, without fear of outsourcing. So far, at least, no one has figured out how to build a nuclear or coal-fired power plant—let alone a plant for converting coal to oil or gas—over the Internet, and the prospects for doing so are dim. Whether led by the government or by the private sector, converting our energy economy to atom- or coal-generated hydrogen would put everyone back to work for a long, long time to come.

It’s a real shame that diplomatic prudence prevents anyone from discussing these very real issues. It’s a tragedy that, as a consequence, so many Americans believe that war, or near war, over scarce resources—or “nation building” in impossible places like Iraq—is our destiny for the foreseeable future. Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could be a more depressing commentary on the lack of foresight and vision of our national leadership and the intellectual bankruptcy of our presidential debates.

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