April 8 - More strange weather - a snow storm yesterday in New York that left 4 inches of snow, crusted over with freezing rain. Yuk! The war lurches on - British and American military tactics seem to be highly successful against the elite Iraqi troops, but fighting continues with the irregulars still opposing Coalition troops. Bombs are dropped in a posh suburban area where the Saddams may have been meeting with senior staffers - bulldozers are still going through the rubble to find out if we killed them.
A bad day for journalists - US tank shells scored direct hits on the Palestine Hotel, where the journalists are staying, killing two photographers, and the offices of al Jazeera, killing one journalist. Unsurprisingly, al Jazeera is claiming that it was a deliberate act designed to bias the way they are reporting the war and the Arab on the street reacts by getting even more whooped up (if that is even possible.) At some point, Arab opinion may be so completely lined up against the US that our military planners will decide we are wasting time and money with all of those smart bombs and start instead to do what we are going to be accused of anyway - bombing willy nilly, without regard for civilian casualties. Well, all right, I am ranting and I don't really think that, but I do think that in a subtler way our prosecution of the war is always governed by a trade-off between how effective it is in achieving our purely military objectives and how it achieves our political objectives. The less able we are to achieve those political objectives, the less important they become in that trade-off.
Read a piece in the Times interviewing Ahmed Aboulmagd, an Egyptian intellectual who has spoken out for years on the importance of modernizing Islamic life and promoting understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. He now blames Bush for setting back these efforts to square one by his "exaggerated response" to the terror attacks of September 11. Thinking about this, I realize that it would indeed have been a gross over-reaction to those attacks if bin Laden had been an isolated weird-o who was unconnected to the rest of Arab opinion. What Bush is reacting to, however, is not the attack itself but the obvious far-ranging approval it received in the Arab world. Now, the $64,000 question is the impact that the current action against the Iraqi regime will have on this far-ranging hatred of the US. The short term impact is certainly easy to assess, but I still don't know what to expect in the long run. I do know that the extent of that hatred before the war makes it a lot easier to justify fighting, since it gives us less to lose; however, whatever it was that we then had to lose on the Arab street, we definitely lost it.
Now, how is the long run going to shake out? How will al Jazeera report on a possible successful democratic experiment in Iraq? I'm still betting that, like all businesses, al Jazeera will defer to the paying customers and find some way of pitching the whole thing to our disadvantage. But maybe Bush and Blair will have their own Arab language TV show, kinda like Terrance and Phillip, which will show what al Jazeera doesn't. And we will also get some bang out of the effect our presence has on the leaders of our "allies" in the region.
April 9 - Yet more strange weather - chilly and rainy, with the snow melting rather slowly. There is no word yet on whether we nailed the Saddams or not last night, but the Minister of Information failed to show for the morning propaganda meeting and it was decreed that Baghdad has fallen to the Coalition. The TV shows the Iraqis going wild, overturning a large statue of Saddam, decapitating it and dragging the head around the block while people ran up to it and whacked it with a shoe, which apparently means something really nasty in the Arab world.
There was an interesting moment just before the statue fell - the Marines offered to help the citizenry topple the statue, and brought up a tank recovery vehicle to do the trick. Right as the Marine looped a chain around Saddam's neck, he whipped out an American flag and covered Saddam's head with it. Someone in command immediately got him to replace it with the Iraqi flag, but guess which image was going out on al Jazeera? Symbolism is everything.
At the same time, there's still sniper action across Baghdad and presumably will be for some time to come. Looting is everywhere. In the north, there are still several divisions of Republican Guards facing off against the Kurds and US Special Forces, although one has to assume that the Guard could crack at any moment with all the bad news coming to them from the rest of the country.
So, now the hard part starts. Restore civil authority without shooting looters. Patch up the wounded. Root out the foreigners (Syrians, Palentinians, etc, who have come to make jihad on the Coalition) and kick them out. Restore essential services - water, electricity, phones. Get a process in place to create a constitution and identify potential leaders to push it along. Pursuade the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs and the Shiites to get along. Feed the hungry. Find prohibited weapons. Allow the economic machinery of Iraq to resume. Fix roads, airports, war damage everywhere. Get Bush over there to shake some hands. Good luck, guys, you're going to need it!
Oil prices actually rise as OPEC realizes that there is not going to be any prolonged shortage of oil and starts talking about cutting back production. Me, I would bet on prices falling sharply once Iraqi production is back in gear - they will have such a desperate need for cash that we can't expect them to respect any kinds of production limits.
April 10 - The war is not over, but there is continued rapid progress. We bomb Tikrit, Saddam's ancestral home. The Kurds take Kirkuk, one of the major oil towns in the north. The Turks are upset because the US promised that they would not permit any big land grab by the Kurds that might turn into an independent Kurdistan and say they will send observers. The Kurds quickly say that they had no intention of staying, but they just had to go in to help restore order in Kirkuk; they'll be out any minute now. The Arab world is depressed because the US had such an easy time of it. In a way, this is good, since we want to convince them we are mighty. On the other hand - not good, as the old Arab failure trap grips them a little more tightly. But somehow I believe that, once we embarked on the war, it would not have been in our interest to blunder around appearing any less mighty than we did.
A suicide bomber strikes at a check-point in Baghdad, making life that much harder for both the US and the Iraqis. Our reaction has to be to keep the Iraqis at arm's length - that kid kissing you might be wrapped in dynamite.
April 13 - The weather finally turns warm and sunny. All right! The trees are ready to leaf out and the birds twitter on their branches. America rejoices as 7 American POWs are turned into the Marines. These were support troops who were captured at the same time as the now famous Private Lynch when they took a wrong turn on the road to Badhdad. Apparently, the Iraqi officers deserted and the soldiers still holding the POWs made arrangements to surrender to the US.
The hawks (not the avian kind) may now be seen preening themselves on TV - "You see how foolish and ill-considered your opposition to the war seems now." The doves are furiously regrouping and shifting their ground - "Well, we never said you couldn't defeat the Iraqi army. But - " either "our concerns about creating a stable and democratic Iraq are still valid" or "if you are willing to spend billions on pacifying the Iraqis, why can't we spend that much on our schools and medicine for our elderly?"
I think the hawks are entitled to a little preening - the military campaign has been rapid and has achieved its goals in less time than most of us dared hope and apparently with relatively little civilian carnage. But, as I emphasized a couple of posts ago, the peace is the harder part and also vital to achieve our overall strategy. On the other hand, converting the war into an argument for pursuing liberal spending goals seems ludicrous, and I think that it will be seen as such. "Hey, you guys get to have your war - now it's time for us!" It makes it sound as if the engagement in Iraq was embarked on as a jolly venture to enrich its conservative supporters, rather than a campaign in a war that involves all Americans and has being going on for years.
April 14 - Tikrit falls to the Coalition with little organized opposition and the US announces that the real fighting of the war is over.
The Times today has a report on what amounts to ethnic cleansing by the Kurds. Years ago, Saddam kicked the Kurds out of their homes in Kirkuk and other northern towns and moved Arabs into their places. Now the Kurds want to return, so they are doing exactly the same thing - rounding up the Arabs and booting them out of their homes. Nothing like receiving a boot in the butt and being turned out into the desert to create a feeling of nationhood! I'm afraid that there may be a lot of similar grudges to settle and that we may conclude we can only solve them by paying all aggrieved parties off. Could be expensive! Ultimately, though, that's what we have in abundance that people want - bucks. Let's use them as we must to achieve our goals. (Although, so far as I know, no-one has claimed the $25 million on bin Laden's head yet.)
Going from winning in Iraq to whining in Iraq - watched a report on TV saying that the Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam but they didn't like the looting and disorder and, if the troops didn't put an end to it, they would be very angry with the Coalition. It sounds almost as if they are convinced we are their new rulers, and the only question is whether our rule will be any more enlightened than Saddam's. I am being unfair, perhaps - we should of course be held responsible for following through on our public statements about our goals for the war - liberation, Big Macs in every pot. On the other hand, we have always been very outspoken on the need for the Iraqis to take over responsibility for governing the country. On the third hand, there are probably a ton of Iraqis for whom the notion of taking responsibility for running the country is a totally alien concept, since they have lived under a totalitarian regime ever since they were born. On the fourth hand, we managed to recruit a ton of Baghdad policemen to work with the military to help stabilize the city, but now angry voices are saying that we are putting the same old robbers in charge again. It is clear that liberation from Saddam doesn't entail any kind of blanket trust of either the Coalition or of their fellow Iraqis. Can't really say I blame them.
Also on TV, I saw a doctor in Tikrit ridiculing the notion that things would get better in a post-Saddam Iraq. After all, Saddam was always an agent of the US, so why should you expect anything to change? We were just here after the oil, he explained.
April 15 - A sudden explosion of sabre-rattling against Syria. Rumsfeld accuses them of letting "martyrs" pass through Syria on their way to jihad against the Coalition, of developing WMD, of granting sanctuary to the fugitives from Saddam's regime. Powell hastily announces that we have no military plans "right now" to invade Syria, but we are looking forward to improvements in their behavior in these areas.
Clearly, we are seeing one of the next major steps in the war - bullying nearby nations that are active supporters of terrorism. This is certainly likely to be a lot more effective now that we have a huge military presence on their doorstep, although it is not going to do much good in the hearts and minds department. Bullying is good so long as we perceive the threat to come from the state as opposed to some shadowy terrorist organization that has the heartfelt approval of the entire Arab world. Perhaps Syria is a good candidate, since it is an autocracy and has a record of supporting Hezbollah, although Hezbollah has not yet targeted the US for terrorism.
I can't help wondering how much the Administration is figuring on doing in the hearts and minds department. Talks are now underway among Iraqis to hammer out a new government, subject to US rules that require a secular democratic government, with respect for pluralism and the rule of law. In the long run, this may well be a good foundation for a more western-friendly Iraq, but I'm not sure that its influence will reach far outside Iraq's borders.
So is there any hope for influencing the hearts and minds outside Iraq's borders? I guess I'm not real hopeful that we can pull much off in the short run, although perhaps we could get the Saudis and the Egyptians to try to influence the funding of religious activities away from a rabid anti-western focus. Certainly, the surge in funding for anti-American causes that materialized after the first Gulf War might be discouraged, although any overt effort by the US to interfere seems likely to be couterproductive.
Perhaps we could covertly fund The New Islamic Fundamentalism, which would emphasize meditation and peace and love of one's fellow man? Would that stand a chance? Nah!
April 22 - How will the presence of the US military affect the Iraeli-Palenstinian conflict? This is actually one of the most intriguing questions of the day. It comes at a time when a majority of Palestinians appear to have a desire for peace with Israel and the new Palestinian leaders are about to take over from the old guard.
The big question is - what can we bring to the table to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the conflict? Israel already has vast superiority in conventional weapons over the Palestinians and a lot more experience than the US in defending against guerilla warfare. So the focus of our military presence is likely to be on the nearby states - principally Syria and Iran - that support the Palenstinian terrorist organizations. (That probably explains our war-cries against Syria in the last week.) We also have the ability to exert some leverage over Israel, although no-one will believe that we will bring direct military pressure to bear on them, so our ability to influence them is not really enhanced by the physical proximity of our forces.
The only other influence we can bring is symbolic. Ever since Jimmy Carter, American presidents have put their credibility on the line to act as honest brokers for peace and have been rewarded by nothing but contempt from the Arab world, so Bush had initially tried to avoid being involved in the conflict. Who needs the abuse? Since September 11, however, this approach has not been defensible. As a result, I think that Bush will put a lot of energy into obtaining peace as a key ingredient of his hearts and minds campaign.
Which is not to say that it is a slam dunk - this is a problem that has frustrated the best minds of the world for years. How can you really create a meaningful Palenstinian state? In the West bank? What happens to Gaza? In two separate chunks of land - like Pakistan/Bangla Desh? What happens to the settlements? How can the Palestinians guarantee proper treatment of Jews who get caught behind the dividing line? Should the UN be involved in guaranteeing the peace? Would the Palestinians have true national sovereignty - free to build a military force? Have airports?
But, this time the right ingredients may come together - the Palestinians a bit cowed by the US's rout of Saddam, the new blood in the Palestinian Authority, the persistence of the US as mediator, the unwillingness of nearby supporters of Palestinian terrorism to stick their necks out while the US tanks are rolling. I permit myself a teeny bit of optimism that now may be the time.
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