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

25 February 2006

Who Bombed the Golden Dome?

The bombing of the Al-Askariya “Golden Mosque” in Samarra last Tuesday was a crime against humanity.  The mosque complex had stood for over 1100 years.  In size, age and surpassing beauty, its golden dome was unique in the Islamic world.  Its destruction was reminiscent of the Taliban’s year-2000 destruction of the fifth-century Buddhas in Bamiyan.  You don’t have to be a Muslim to abhor that sort of crime.

Suspicion has focused on Sunni Baathist extremists or Al-Zarqawi’s thugs, possibly in collusion.  The main evidence against them is the perpetrators’ “professionalism.” Apparently the bombers were trained in demolition.  In a few minutes, they entered the mosque, planted their explosives, escaped unharmed, and brought down the golden dome with surgical precision.

Yet drawing conclusions from modus operandi alone is unwise, especially in Iraq.  Plenty of explosives for the crime were available from unguarded arms caches all over the country. The Iran-Iraq war ran eight years, from 1980 to 1988.  It involved millions of troops on both sides; estimates of the dead alone range up to 1.5 million. Surely not everyone who learned to handle explosives in that long war was a Sunni Baathist.

One feature of the golden-mosque bombing was highly unusual.  Innumerable people, mostly Shiites, have died in recent explosions in Iraq, but here no one died.  Any analysis of responsibility must account for that odd fact.

Motive is usually much more reliable in solving crimes than modus operandi.  The apparent goal of the bombing was to ignite a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, and perhaps in the whole region.  Who would stand to gain from civil war?

In the long run, Sunni Baathists most likely would not.  Their geographic, demographic, industrial and military position is highly vulnerable.  For them, the most likely outcome of all-out sectarian war in Iraq would be substantial destruction and loss of what remains of their hold on power, if not territory.  The only conceivable circumstance in which they might dream of winning would be a precipitous withdrawal of American forces, including air power---an event unlikely to occur.

No one can entirely rule out Sunni Baathist involvement.  In every respect---political, economic, and military---their power is on the wane, while Shiites’ power increases daily.  Baathist extremists might have wanted to provoke a civil war before the balance of power shifts decisively against them.

But why would they spare Shiite lives?  If they really wanted to foment civil war and strike terror in their enemies, why not blow the dome during Friday evening prayers, when the blast and falling stone might have killed or injured hundreds?   There may have been practical, logistical reasons for not doing so, but the total absence of victims is striking.

The same reasoning applies to Zarqawi’s thugs, who style themselves “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”  They have never blanched at killing Shiites or other Muslims in large numbers.  Why stop now?  Furthermore, their usual modus operandi is suicide bombing, not surgically precise building demolition.  The operation simply does not “smell” like Zarqawi, unless he and his minions have suddenly taken to heart the universal Muslim revulsion at killing so many devout Shiites.

So there is considerable reason to doubt the usual suspects’ guilt.  Who else might be responsible?

It was not Hitler’s enemies, as he claimed, who burned down the Reichstag before World War II.  It was Hitler’s own Brown Shirts, seeking to exploit the resulting public outrage and insecurity to cement the Nazis’ hold on power.  Could the golden dome’s destruction be analogous?

Unlike Sunni Baathists, two forces have a distinct probability of gaining from a civil war in Iraq.  One is Muqtada Al Sadr.  The other is Iran.  

Muqtada is a unique mullah in Iraq. He does not have the formal religious education required of Shiite clerics.  Instead, he bases his religious authority on his family origins.

He is no stranger to covert revolutionary and violent acts.  His father in law, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqr as Sadr, is believed to have been one of the first leaders of Al Dawah, a then-secret Iranian-backed revolutionary party in Saddam’s Iraq.  Muqtada himself is a suspect in the murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid Al-Khoei---son of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s teacher---by a mob of Muqtada’s supporters in 2003.

Furthermore, Muqtada has very personal reasons to despise Baathists and, by extension, all Sunnis.  Saddam had Muqtada’s father in law (the same Baqr as Sadr) executed in 1980 for alleged involvement in attempts to kill Iraqi ministers.  Saddam is also believed to have ordered the bombing assassination of Muqtada’s own father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, in 1999.  Muqtada’s two brothers died in that bombing.  Thus, Muqtada has every reason to believe that Saddam and the Baathists nearly wiped out his family.

Muqtada has all the makings of an Iraqi Milosevic.  Like Milosevic, whose parents both committed suicide, he has a history of family tragedy.  Unlike Milosevic, he has someone specific to blame: Saddam and the Baathists.  He has his own militia and a renegade mullah’s ability to rationalize any act.  He has a large and ever-growing following in the Shiite slums of Baghdad.  He is undoubtedly the most dangerous man in Iraq---far more than Zarqawi, whose native support is tenuous among Sunnis and nonexistent among Shiites.

Could Muqtada have ordered the golden dome’s destruction?  The Al-Askariya Mosque is a holy Shiite shrine, but it’s not Muqtada’s.  It’s in Samarra, in the Sunni triangle, far from Muqtada’s turf in Najaf.  He could easily blame its disfigurement on local Sunnis.  And there is still that strange and wonderful fact: no victims.

Yet the most persuasive reason to finger Muqtada is what he has to gain.  An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada for the murder of Ayatollah Al-Khoei, but the warrant has never been enforced.  After an inconclusive battle with Coalition forces, Muqtada cut a deal: he would remain at large but would disband his militia.  For political reasons, Muqtada indeed remains at large; but it is an open secret that his “Mahdi Militia” still exists and may be growing.

Muqtada therefore has much to gain from civil war.  The closer Iraq comes to a secure, civil society, the closer Muqtada comes to trial for the murder of Al-Khoei.  The stronger and more professional the Iraqi military becomes, the greater the chance of disbanding Muqtada’s militia.  Without a formal religious education or the authority to issue fatwas, Muqtada would have little authority in a stable, peaceful Iraq.  The more democratic and stable Iraq becomes, the less of a future any young firebrand like him will have.  

Civil war, however, might allow him to thrive.  In a widespread civil war, the Coalition would be powerless to control the entire country.  Militias like Muqtada’s would have relatively free reign.  Sunni-hating Shiites would join the Mahdi Militia in droves.  Muqtada could have his revenge, killing Sunni Baathists with abandon.

Muqtada might also have a shot at real power.  Coalition forces might withdraw or downsize, if only temporarily to “sit out” the civil war.  When (if ever) they returned in full force, Muqtada and his militia might be on top.  He would then have a real chance of becoming the next Iraqi strongman.  At very least, he would be a far more formidable force in the formation of any post-civil-war government, whether by ballots or by bullets.  And the murder charge against him likely would get lost in the chaos of civil war.

The other force that could gain from civil war is Iran.  In any civil war, Iraqi Sunnis would suffer terribly.  They would likely lose all remnants of control over power and economic resources, if not territory.  Iran’s mullahs could then enjoy real victory over their old enemies in the inconclusive eight-year war, bought with others' blood.

It is unlikely that Iran would ever annex Iraq, or even part of it, simply because of the Shiite connection.  Iraq’s Shiites are very different from Iran’s.  Iraq’s mullahs are more democratic and reasonable, and there is no lack of bad blood, even among Shiites, between Iran and Iraq.  In addition, Iran is Persian and Iraq Arabic, with vastly differing histories and frequent conflict.

But with peace between Iran and Iraq, there is some risk that Iraqi Shiites will find common ground with their Iranian “brethren” on many issues.  A civil war between Shia and Sunni in Iraq would increase that risk greatly.

War has a way of inciting extremism, including religious extremism.  A civil war would give extremists like Muqtada the upper hand over democrats for the foreseeable future.  It might well turn Iraq away from secular democracy and toward an extreme theocracy like Iran’s.  Only a truly Lincolnesque leader could prevent that from happening, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani is the only candidate for that role.  He is old and frail and might not survive a long war.

Iran’s true interest appears in its courtship of Muqtada.  No less a figure than Iran’s former President Rafsanjani praised Muqtada and his militia before the present deal to “disband” Muqtada’s militia was cut.  Iran has many ties with extreme elements of Iraqi Shia, and it may be supporting Muqtada’s militia with more than words.

But the clincher for Iran’s interest is what a civil war would avoid.  Iran has every reason to fear strong, stable democracies on its borders, whether or not Shiite.  One on its eastern border---Afghanistan---is well on its way.  A strong democracy in Iraq might well be the beginning of the end for the mullahs’ isolated regime.

Could someone in Iran have ordered or tolerated desecration of a holy Shiite shrine?   From a religious perspective, that seems unlikely.  But not all of Iran’s leaders are holy men.  There is the military, and there is President Ahmadinejad’s increasingly belligerent political regime.  Furthermore, the shrine is easily restored, and no lives were lost.  A Sunni sheikh, in the interests of national unity, has already offered money for its restoration.

In his public statements, Iran’s President is one of the most intemperate world leaders since Adolf Hitler.  He has advocated destruction of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.  He has insisted on Iran’s right to enrich uranium for allegedly peaceful purposes, but virtually no one believes Iran’s enrichment will stop with civilian applications.  It is not hard to imagine that he, or someone acting for his regime (perhaps with plausible deniability), ordered the golden dome’s destruction.

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16 February 2006

Playing into Bush’s Hands

I’ve stopped giving money to the Democratic Party.  I don’t know whether the proper metaphor is lemmings or a suicide pact.  Yet Democrats seem hell bent on squandering the chance that the Bush Administration’s overreaching, incompetence, cronyism, and corruption have given them. 

The central political mistake of the Bush Administration should be obvious to everyone by now.  It certainly wasn’t lack of ideas.  The Bushies conceived or rapidly co-opted almost every new idea in national discourse since 2000, including energy independence.  Their execution has not been stellar, but that doesn’t mean that all of their big ideas are bad ones. 

The Administration’s biggest mistake was trying to govern from the fringe.  President Bush, who was first “elected” by the Supreme Court and then re-elected by a 3% majority, governs as if he won a landslide.  He speaks and often acts as if the vast majority of Americans wants Roe v.  Wade overturned, religion (meaning Christianity) back in the schools, and all economic ills cured with lower taxes and a big dose of laissez faire capitalism.  That’s not true and never will be, yet Bush and his political machine soldier on. 

The Bush strategy has set us all back and damaged our nation.  The people are deeply divided, and Congress is dysfunctional.  Petty partisan bickering and cheap shots have become habits, replacing civility and problem solving in our nation’s capital.  A few Republicans are starting to see damage even to the President’s own party, if not in the short term then in the foreseeable future. 

So what are the Democrats doing?  Monkey see, monkey do.  If the President won by “energizing his base” and moving to the fringe, they think, then we’ll do it too.  We’ll play to our own base.  We’ll play the childish penis-matching game: “my base is bigger than your base. ”

There are three problems with that strategy.  First, the traditional Democratic base has dissipated.  Democrats now have a minority party.  The ideas of Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy have worked their magic, but the magic is spent.  It’s time to give the old ideas a joyous Irish wake---or a New Orleans jazz funeral---and move on.  Soaking the rich, bashing corporations, and subsidizing the poor just won’t cut it in the twenty-first century. 

Second, competence never trumps vision.  Michael Dukakis and John Kerry proved that you can’t win a presidential election, let alone Congress, without vision.  Do the Democrats want to roll that same boulder up the hill a third time?

Third and most important, no one will ever beat Bush and his team at their own game.  He and Karl Rove are political geniuses.  When it comes to cobbling together a bare majority on “cultural” issues and national security, making people forget all about credibility, competence, and corruption, they are the best there is.  No one in the Democratic party even comes close. 

The nominations of Justices Roberts and Alito are a prime example.  They are probably two of the best qualified people ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court.  They may lean right, but probably not much more than anyone should expect from a self-described conservative president.  Yet the Bush team subtly “sold” them to the American people (although not to the Senate!) as right-wing ideologues who would bring the most extreme conservative daydreams to reality. 

What a brilliant political ploy that was!  The right-wing fringe---Bush’s base---stood up and cheered.  The Democrats made fools of themselves by pandering to their own fringe and opposing superbly qualified candidates.  And the growing center took note, seeing the Democrats as ideological obstructionists, malcontents, and complainers heedless of the nation’s long-term best interest.  It was one of the cleverest sucker punches in American political history---so clever that most Democrats still don't recognize it as such.

With political skill like that on the Bush team, the Democrats have no chance to win but on substance.  John McCain showed the way with his anti-torture amendment.  God knows McCain could never beat the Bush team on politics alone; the 2000 Republican primary proved that.  But he won on substance, despite strong opposition inside the Administration.  He had a good idea; he pressed it with relentless sincerity; and he prevailed.  If the Democrats want to stop losing, they are going to have to find good, simple ideas like that and credible messengers like John McCain, lots of them. 

I’m very happy that Howard Dean has finally learned media skills.  On a television interview recently with Chris Matthews about Iraq policy, he showed Matthews up as the frivolous gossip monger and intellectual gnat that he is.  Matthews tried to get Dean to talk about Cindy Sheehan, the war protester at the Bush Ranch, but Dean stayed on message and spoke with the gravitas and sobriety appropriate for a major party leader.  It was an impressive performance, a far cry from Dean's famous primal scream, and a small victory in a largely losing political war. 

But learning video skills and pandering to the fringe will not get Democrats elected.  The Bushies are unequalled at political gamesmanship.  Even if you dislike their policies or their execution, you have to admire their consummate political skill.  Democrats will never win by trying to “out-politick” the Bush machine. 

There is only one thing in the Democrats’ favor.  Running the world’s most powerful nation at a time of awesome religious, political, economic and social change---not to mention possible climate change---is not a football game.  It’s a deadly serious business. 

There are signs that the American people are slowly waking up to that fact.  They’re beginning to see how little the Bush Administration has accomplished besides keeping the economy from stalling and starting a war that may run for a generation.  They’re beginning to see that the list of unsolved problems is far longer than the list of problems solved and growing longer every day.  They want real solutions, not just rhetoric, for problems like winning the war in Iraq, accommodating globalization, reducing the deficit, rationalizing our social security and the tax systems, educating our children so they can compete with China’s and India’s, and reconfiguring our nation’s coastal infrastructure for what looks like a coming succession of nasty hurricane seasons.  There are signs they are fed up with the sort of petty partisan bickering that political gamesmanship inevitably engenders. 

Democrats’ main chance depends on that awakening.  They had better have some good, new ideas and credible messengers ready when it comes.

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08 February 2006

The 50.1 Percent Man

If you want to know why President Bush’s percentage approval ratings hover around the thirties, you should look at another percentage. That’s the percentage by which he has tried to govern.

Ken Duberstein, former White House Chief of Staff under President Reagan, put it aptly. In recent colloquy on the “Lehrer News Hour,” he said the Bush Administration likes to govern by 50.1%. Whenever it has the barest majority, it rushes full speed ahead, ignoring advice, opposition and consequences.

A parliamentary democracy like Britain’s would discourage that approach. With a badly split electorate like ours, a vote of “no confidence” would always be just one issue away. But our Constitution allows a president, like Bush, to be elected without a majority of popular votes. It also allows Congress to govern, in most things, by a simple majority. The theory is that, if the people don’t like what they get, they can force a course correction at the next election.

Yet despite metaphorical references to the “machinery of democracy,” our nation is not a machine. It’s a vast land of nearly 300 million people. And as most of us eventually learn as we get older, people generally don’t like to be pushed around. Especially in a democracy, one has to respect people, consult them, and listen to them---including the minority---in order to govern well. That’s why most politicians, asked how to govern with the sort of “mandate” Bush got in the last two presidential elections, would respond with two simple points of advice: move to the center and compromise.

Not Bush. He came to office with a radical, “transformational” agenda and every intention of jamming it down the throats of any 49.9 percent who did not agree.

That approach may be technically constitutional, but it’s not the sort of government most Americans want or expect. Except in critical times like the Civil War and the War in Vietnam, we have generally governed ourselves, if not by consensus, then at least by majorities much broader than 50.1%. Building a bipartisan consensus is vital for a nation so vast and diverse, in which shared values are the only glue that binds us all together. Part of the function of democratic government is constantly reinforcing widely shared values.

Broad consensus and bipartisanship are not just matters of comity and good feeling. Neither of our two parties has a monopoly on truth, brains or common sense. Both have ideological blind spots that sometimes prevent them from listening to reason. As the electorate well understands, truth and good government usually lie in the middle. Governing unilaterally from the edge means courting mistakes and occasionally disaster.

Under the President’s “Texas swagger,” arrogance, stubbornness and domineering governance lie some pretty good ideas. But these repellent personal qualities and his political bullying keep many of us from hearing them or giving them their due.

If you had asked Democrats to identify the chief flaw in our foreign policy during the Cold War, most would have said that we spent too much time and money supporting vicious dictatorships, and too little fostering democracy. Now the “Bush/Rice doctrine” attempts to institutionalize the very same idea in another context. Yet many of the folks who would have supported it most enthusiastically fifteen years ago don’t listen.

Why? The answer lies in the old saw: “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” To many, the “Bush/Rice Doctrine” seems an insincere, belated justification for an unpopular war begun with false intelligence and horribly mismanaged. Instead of thinking about how wonderful a democratic world would be and how to realize it quicker, most of us 49.9% are hung up on the sad facts of history: in invading Iraq, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld junta didn’t really listen to anyone outside their own inner circle. Not only didn’t they listen to their loyal opposition; they didn’t listen to their European allies, their own Secretary of State, or their own dissenting generals. So, as if out of spite, we won’t listen to their grand ideas for reforming the world.

The President’s “ownership society” has a similar history. Who doesn’t think increasing home ownership is good for society? Who doubts that pensioners and those about to become pensioners would be better off if all their pension money were in private accounts in their own names? Certainly airline employees would be better off if bankruptcy courts couldn’t touch and “downsize” their pensions. Employees with 401(k) plans would be better off if they hadn’t been forced to invest mainly in securities of their employers. Many Baby Boomers might ultimately be better off with private accounts than they will be if Congress ever begins to address the growing imbalances in Social Security and our monstrous deficit.

Yet Bush did not present private ownership of pensions on its own merits. Nor did he invite discussion of his new idea. Instead, he used it as a ploy to “downsize” Social Security, which most older Americans see as the only certainty in a very uncertain world. Understandably, the public viewed the President’s ploy as risky and sneaky, and it never gained traction. His failure left everyone wondering whether the “ownership society” was a good idea misapplied, or just a failed pretext for an underhanded ideological attack on a program that most everyone likes and trusts but that doctrinaire conservatives have consistently opposed from its inception.

The worst example of Bush’s governing philosophy is the Supreme Court. He might have gently reminded the nation that the Court in recent years has become more ideological and less predictable. He might have gently suggested that judges of a less ideological bent would make a small but useful mid-course correction. Had he done so, a significant portion of the country’s vast center would have supported, or at least quietly accepted, his choices for the Court.

Yet he chose a far more confrontational course. He promised his most extreme supporters to change the Court’s direction radically. He hinted that opposition to Roe v. Wade and support for fundamentalist Christianity were among his objectives. He scared the living daylights out of the 49.9%. Then, to rub salt in the wound, he announced he would use Republicans’ congressional majority to ram his nominations through, even threatening the “nuclear option” of outlawing filibusters.

The result was predictable: mindless polarization and a political battle royal that was far more heat than light. When a superbly qualified and experienced candidate like Sam Alito gets fewer Democratic votes than a flawed candidate like Clarence Thomas, you know that something has gone wrong.

The irony is that all this may have been nothing more than a political charade. Neither Chief Justice Roberts nor Justice Alito is likely to be as radical as President Bush seems to have promised or as his opponents fear. Both testified consistently to a “conservative” approach, but with a small “c.” Both praised respecting precedent, making only incremental changes, and justifying conclusions with detailed legal analysis, not a judge’s own personal policy views. Furthermore, lifetime tenure has a way of reinforcing judicial independence. After a few years on the Court, Justices have a way of forgetting who appointed them and thinking about history and this nation’s great principles, which they are sworn to defend.

So what did Bush’s “in your face” approach accomplish? In a scant few months he managed to stir up a hornet’s nest of fear and suspicion, undermine judicial independence (or at least the public’s perception of it), tarnish the public image of the Supreme Court, cast doubt upon the integrity of his own nominees, and reinforce a political division that may take a generation to heal. All this he did for temporary political advantage, in the hope of “energizing his base” and maintaining a 50.1% majority. Most dispassionate observers would say that was not a rational trade-off, nor in the country’s long-term best interest.

The real tragedy of the Bush approach to government is what it has done to the nation. A people that was wholly unified after the attacks of September 11 is now divided against itself. The 49.9% is sullen, resentful and full of suspicion. Congress is so polarized it can barely function, despite a Republican majority. And a secret spying program against Al Qaeda has become controversial largely because most of the 49.9%---and even some of the 50.1%---don’t trust their own government to do the right thing, especially in secret.

Whoever follows Bush as president will have a hell of a job to unify the country and govern from the center. Healing the deep wounds that Bush’s 50.1% approach has inflicted will take supernatural political skill. Even with that skill, complete healing may take a generation, as it did after Watergate.

In the meantime, an insanely polarized and nearly bankrupt country must tackle a generational war, an unsustainable and growing deficit, a new and highly competitive globalized world, and the financial drag of tens of millions of aging Baby Boomers. As the next Congress and the next Administration take shape, even President Bush’s most ardent admirers may begin to wish that he had shown more moderation and politesse and governed more from the center.

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