April 23 - Interesting that the expected wave of suicide attacks never really materialized, despite my ominous words of warning. (I was not the only one - Nick Kristof published a gentlemanly article on the Times op-ed page yesterday, admitting that many of his dovish warnings about the war seem in retrospect to have been off the mark.)
What's going on here? It seems that there really were a fair number of foreign Arab fighters in Iraq to do jihad against the Coalition, but most of their fighting seemed to have been conventional. Is it that the idea of blowing yourself up only appeals to properly brain-washed teenage boys in Palestine who are too young to travel to foreign lands? Is it because a suicide bomber must have absolute confidence in the justice of his cause, in order to be able to count on a proper martyrdom (not to mention to get up the necessary nerve), whereas the war in Iraq has been too morally murky? Is it because blowing yourself up only works against an opponent in a defensive posture, while the Coalition forces were too aggressive to serve as targets? (If this last, it is still possible that we will see a few explosions now that the intense phase of the fighting is over and the Coalition forces are transformed into more vulnerable policemen.)
In the end, I suppose there was always something ludicrous about expecting the Arabs to fight a war by blowing themselves up. In the heat of battle, surely a soldier is intimately aware of the dangers around him to life and limb, and the possibility of being harmed by an exploding enemy soldier can hardly add much to that.
April 29 - I have a confession to make - I have become rabidly intolerant of the entire Arab world. Please don't quote me, however, without including all of the footnotes and explanatory comments.
Before the first Gulf War, my general impression of Arabs was vaguely positive, although not really based on anything other than movie caricatures taken from Indiana Jones - hospitable and cultured, but living in a rough part of the planet and having a backward economy based on subsistence farming overlaid with humongous oil wealth.
Similarly, I had very little in the way of perspective on Islam. It seemed exotic, but otherwise I had no feeling that it was fundamentally different from Christianity - there is a God who'll kick your butt if you don't do what He says, and He mostly says to pray a lot to Him, abide by His rules governing criminal and civil behavior, and feel good at being part of His family.
Since then, we have seen the armed Palestinian Intifada , the rise of al Qaeda, the war in Afghanistan and now the war in Iraq, and its messy aftermath. To my dismay, I find that these events have totally transformed my general impression of Arabs and even to some extent of Islam. Arabs now represent something vile and hateful to me. A lot of this is doubtless a reaction to becoming aware of the hatred many Arabs bear towards Americans, but it goes a lot further than that. In the last few days, we have seen how bad behavior by Arabs - all the looting and the shooting - is so easily blamed on the US. Why should anyone give the slightest credence to the wild stories of how we are responsible for everything bad, without the slightest consideration of the potential good staring them in the face? My stereotype of the Arabs is now sneaky, cowardly, hiding behind their own women and children and then blaming others when that leads to loss of innocent life. Ungrateful, unwilling to give up traditional animosities to try to make a new start. Radical Islam destroys anything attractive or tolerant in the Arab culture and injects hate into everything. Under its influence, Arabs have turned into ignorant, doctrinaire whiners and wankers. Screw 'em all. The next time al Qaeda attacks American soil, I'm going to be among those who say that the Arabs are a lost cause, let's crank up the nukes and just get rid of them all.
Whew! I'm feeling better now, thank you. Of course, I bitterly oppose any kind of global judgement on any large group of people of the kind expressed in the last paragraph. I believe that people are fundamentally much the same everywhere - a mixture of good and bad and a lot of in-between - and I believe that applies just as much to the Arabs as to other peoples. But cultures really can be very different from each other, and this is what one really means when one rants about "Arabs" or "Americans". And what I currently see of the Arab/Muslim culture seems to be long on ferocity and destruction of enemies and short on the qualities needed to produce things of value and to make the world a better place.
May 2 - Suddenly, I get it! It's all about that joke that used to go around the Arab world - Hey, Mohammed! What happens if you launch a terrorist strike against the US, killing thousands of innocent people? I don't know, Abdul, what does happen? The Americans'll sue you!!! What a thigh-slapper!
This dovetails with two events - first, Gulf War I, and second, Somalia. You might think that Gulf War I would have persuaded the Arab world that we were tough, but I think the actual message that got through was that we were wimps - well-armed wimps, perhaps, but unwilling to follow through on the conflict with Saddam if it entailed a danger of taking casualties. And then the events in Somalia reinforce the same message - the US goes in, confident of its military power, but when one little helicopter goes down and they start taking casualties, they run back to mother America with their tails between their legs. Not real men at all, by Arab standards: hence the joke.
The retaliation against al Qaeda in Afghanistan certainly made the point yet again about our military superiority, but I think our reluctance to put troops on the ground possibly cost us the capture of bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders and showcased once again our squeamishness about stepping in harm's way. The importance of going back into Iraq, then, was to show that we were not only well-armed, but were willing to do what had to be done to kick Saddam's butt this time. Yes, we may make more Arabs mad at us by invading one of the best-armed and potentially richest countries in Arabia, but they'll have to take us seriously now! So maybe we don't need to address the root cause of Arab hatred, as I have stressed in earlier posts, after all. It would be nice if we could do it, but maybe we don't have any effective leverage over it anyway. The campaign for hearts and minds is not really needed - just our willingness to fight until the job is done. The Arabs may end up saying that the Americans are still hateful but at least they're real men and it doesn't make sense to mess with them.
The real question for me is - what about all of those hours of angst that I have endured trying to formulate an explanation based on subtle reasoning rather than testosterone? Well, I don't really think that the Administration is reacting strictly from the gonads, but rather that it took some subtle reasoning power to come up with invading Iraq as a way of restoring America's virility. In the eyes of much of Europe, of course, this has been interpreted as America's arrogance and unconcern about others - all qualities intimately associated with an excess of testosterone. In the middle east, an excess might be just about right.
My friend Jorge says - then Bush lied about why he got us into the war! All that crap about terrorist connections and WMD was just made up to justify the invasion, which is outrageous! I agree a bit - it seems a shame that Bush couldn't have said - hey, not only do the Arabs hate us but they think we are a bunch of pussies! We can't have them thinking that of us or they'll be blowing up our shit all over the world. Let's kick some Arab butt!
On the other hand, it doesn't sound very dignified for a chief of state, so it seems appropriate for him to have told a little white lie. And the main thing is whether the war ends up being the right thing or not. And of course we won't know that for quite a while, so let's all relax and enjoy the vicarious thrill of being a studly nation.
May 9 - Finally! Definitive photographic evidence that Saddam was in bed with terrorists the whole time! Just as we thought!
May 13 - Al Qaeda strikes again - this time in Saudi Arabia. Last night, co-ordinated teams of terrorists shot their way into several western compounds where US and other foreign workers live and detonated huge truckloads of explosives. Eight Americans and 30 or more other westerners killed, hundreds wounded. This came in spite of the fact that US intelligence had clearly and publicly indicated that an attack in Saudi Arabia appeared to be imminent and the Saudis had been asked to provide additional security. Only a week or so ago, the Saudis actually uncovered a suspected al Qaeda cell in Riyadh, trying and failing to capture 19 operatives and succesfully capturing weapons, disguises and 800 lbs of high explosives. Now it appears that some of those operatives may have participated in last night's attack.
What does this say about my earlier ruminations about how they won't mess with us any more, now we have shown the world the size of our cojones? Well, it certainly suggests that al Qaeda hasn't folded their tent and moved on to other pursuits, which in itself isn't that surprising. But it is at least consistent with the notion that they have realized that their attack on US soil was disastrous for them, and have decided to rely on attacks that will primarily endanger the enemy Arab governments rather than the US itself. This clarifies the true struggle that is going on: it is a civil war in Saudi Arabia between religious extremists and the monarchy. Westerners are convenient tools of this war, since they are linked to the monarchy, but their main value as targets is that they can easily be scared into leaving the country, which will be a blow to the western-syle economy, although of course a lot of the westerners who will leave will be doctors and dentists whose absence will only harm the Arab in the streets.
On the other hand, it probably doesn't really mean anything, beyond the fact that al Qaeda is alive and well. I certainly would be reluctant to conclude that homeland security is now assured. Being responsible for killing thousands of Americans on their home turf will always always give al Qaeda a lot of credibility in the Arab world, which is doubtless a great tool for attracting money and recruits.
May 17 - And again! Coordinated explosions in Casablanca kill 40, hundreds wounded, in attacks seemingly aimed against a mish-mash of western bad-guys - the Spanish for participating in the coalition that ousted Saddam and the Jews for being those dirty rotten Semites that they are. And the Belgians? Perhaps their association with the hated Brussel sprouts?
I confess that this baffles me, assuming that al Qaeda is responsible, which seems likely. I had just convinced myself (see previous post) that all of the anti-western rhetoric and actions were incidental to the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Saudi monarchy. That fits in with the largely Saudi nationality of the leaders of al Qaeda and their strongly-stated desire for regime-change there. All other activities targeted against the US could be interpreted as either an effort to intimidate the US into reducing their commitment to stand by the monarchy or as part of a recruitment drive by bolstering their position as the only effective global force for radical Islam.
So how does this attack fit into that scheme? Why pick on Spain? Why involve Casablanca, a largely westernized city remote from Arabia? I suppose that I can justify anything by the "recruitment drive" argument, given the unpopularity of the west in Arab and Muslim countries, but that is precisely the weakness of that explanation. Perhaps my assumptions about al Qaeda have been wrong all the time - maybe their struggle against the Saudi monarchy is only incidental to their main goal. Which is ... what? Driving westerners out of Arabia? Rekindling the crusades? Provoking an apocalyptic confrontation between Islam and Christianity?
Well, now I have to go back to admitting that I haven't a clue what is going on. There are only two things that I do believe. The first is that it would be a terrible mistake to believe that they are just a bunch of crazed, irrational religious fanantics. I believe firmly that they are not acting at random or out of petulance, and every move they make is designed to bring them closer to their ultimate goal. After each engagement with the enemy, they sit down and figure out how things went and adjust their strategies accordingly. Killing infidels, even by the thousands, does not constitute a viable ultimate goal, although it could potentially be the warm-up to the apocalyptic confrontation alluded to in the previous paragraph.
The second is that they do believe some weird shit, for sure, which makes it incredibly difficult for rational westerners to figure out what they are really up to. So I think I'll just sit tight for a while until someone can give me a plausible explanation of what's happening. And so, good-night.
May 19 - The fifth Hamas suicide bomber in three days blows himself up, killing the usual assortment of innocent bystanders. The objective of this latest campaign is obviously to torpedo the talks between the new Palestinian prime minister and the Israelis. The Israelis, rightly, will refuse to negotiate any agreement with Mahmoud Abbas if he cannot show that he controls the violence at his end, and so the killing and hatred will continue.
One of the most depressing thing I saw on TV about it was an interview by one of the networks of a senior spokesman for Hamas. The interviewer was asking how it could possibly be in the interest of the average Palestinian for Hamas to send suicide bombers in order to make sure that the peace process does not get anywhere. His answer to this - and to every other question - was that Sharon was the problem, Sharon was the terrorist, Sharon was the one sending the tanks, Sharon was killing innocent Palestinians. It seemed silly for him to grant an interview, given how totally he ducked the central issue of how his actions were going to help the situation. The final impression was that Hamas does war, not peace, and nothing could happen that would stop them from attacking Israel - presumably short of all the Israelis being driven into the sea. Perhaps he can't imagine what he could do in peace-time and he didn't want to lose his job.
May 21 - From Persepolis, an account of the Iran-Iraq war in comic book form, by Iranian Marjane Satrapi. This refers to the recruitment of Iranian children as "martyrs", completely kitted out with a key to paradise, to act as minesweepers. If you don't step on a mine, that's good. If you do step on a mine, that's better - you go straight to paradise. Either way, the army know what route to take through the minefield.
May 22 - Salam Pax is back! Here's his first post since the electricity went out.
But I am sounding now like the Taxi drivers I have fights with whenever I get into one.
Besides asking for outrageous fares (you can’t blame them gas prices have gone up 10 times, if you can get it) but they start grumbling and mumbling and at a point they would say something like “well it wasn’t like the mess it is now when we had saddam”. This is usually my cue for going into rage-mode. We Iraqis seem to have very short memories, or we simply block the bad times out. I ask them how long it took for us to get the electricity back again after he last war? 2 years until things got to what they are now, after 2 months of war. I ask them how was the water? Bad. Gas for car? None existent. Work? Lots of sitting in street tea shops. And how did everything get back? Hussain Kamel used to literally beat and whip people to do the impossible task of rebuilding. Then the question that would shut them up, so, dear Mr. Taxi driver would you like to have your saddam back? Aren’t we just really glad that we can now at least have hope for a new Iraq? Or are we Iraqis just a bunch of impatient fools who do nothing better than grumble and whine? Patience, you have waited for 35 years for days like these so get to working instead of whining. End of conversation.
The truth is, if it weren’t for intervention this would never have happened. When we were watching the Saddam statue being pulled down, one of my aunts was saying that she never thought she would see this day during her lifetime.
War. No matter what the outcome is. These things leave a trail of destruction behind them. There were days when the Red Crescent was begging for volunteers to help in taking the bodies of dead people off the city street and bury them properly. The hospital grounds have been turned to burial grounds when the electricity went out and there was no way the bodies can be kept until someone comes and identifies.
I confess to the sin of being an escapist. When reality hurts I block it out, unless it comes right up to me and knocks me cold. My mother, after going out once after Baghdad was taken by the US Army, decided she is not going out again, not until I promise it looks kind of normal and OK. So I guess the Ostrich maneuver runs in the family.
Things are looking kind of OK, these days. Life has a way of moving on. Your senses are numbed, things stop shocking you. If there is one thing you should believe in, it is that life will find a way to push on, humans are adaptable, that is the only way to explain how such a foolish species has kept itself on this planet without wiping itself out. Humans are very adaptable, physically and emotionally.
Nov 28 - Here's a wonderful op-ed piece in the Times by a prominent Saudi critic of Saudi religious extremism: Telling the Truth, Facing the Whip. It seems like this is where the critical action is: can the monarchy reverse their historical stance of appeasing the religious extremists without precipitating civil war? Even if some of the Princes are genuinely devoted to Wahhabism, they must now see that religious extremism threatens their comfy existence. But their past policies of appeasement have ensured that religious extremism is entrenched in the schools and dominating the culture. So what culture can the Princes push in its place that will appeal to the Saudi masses, remove the threat to the monarchy and keep the extremists quiet? Good luck, guys - you're going to need it! Sometimes I think our best bet would be an agreement with Bin Laden in which we help him overthrow the monarchy. Perhaps it would get him off our back - it would certainly give us more of a geographical focus for any military retaliation that might be required in the future. And would he sell us the oil? Hell, yes, you bet he would - religious extremists need money, too! The main flaw in this plan is the possibility that the country would degenerate into such a mess that they wouldn't be able to get the oil out of the ground.
March 8, 2004 - Just read another interesting quote from Mansour al-Nogaidan (see last post), talking to a New York Times reporter. "A Buraida philosopher once said: 'If you bring Queen Elizabeth to rule in Yemen, she will rule like Imam Ahmad, one of the most radical religious leaders of Yemen. And if you bring Imam Ahmad to England, he will rule like Queen Elizabeth.' The culture and society will dictate the way you rule. We hear talk about democracy. But if we apply democracy now, we'll ride it like we ride camels. Democracy needs a liberal culture. In the beginning we need freedom, we need different parties to have their rights and a culture that allows people to be represented."
After his op-ed piece appeared in the Times last year, Mansour has been briefly jailed and forbidden to publish in Saudi Arabia, thus dramatically illustrating and proving his point about official intolerance in Saudi Arabia.
May 26, 2004 - Well, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal has been about as bad as it could be. (The wonders of the digital age - soldiers can behave in disgusting ways and incriminate themselves as the same time!) I imagine that people all over the world find it that much harder to believe in the claim that the US kicked Saddam out for altruistic reasons and that much easier to believe that we never really cared for the Arabs. Of course, the Arab world will be the least affected, since there were probably relatively few people who ever believed in our benevolence, but it seems a shame to be disillusioning those few.
It's hard to make a public statement in favor of abuse and I am not going to do so here. On the other hand, I do think that much of the furor implies a startling degree of naivete. In war, people (generally young men) try to kill each other. A fair number of those in the Abu Ghraib prison were there on suspicion that they they have been involved in some way in the actual or attempted killing of American soldiers, the buddies of the men and women guarding them. How should we expect those guards to feel about them? Abusive, perhaps? Even homicidal? Prison abuse is nothing new and those shocking pictures mostly showed prisoners being humiliated, not physically harmed. It reminds me a bit of a Monty Python sketch, which describes the approach of feared gang leader Doug Piranha for torturing his victims: "He used... sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and... satire. He was vicious." Says one witness: "I've seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug." I liked the comment by one Congressman that the victims of the abuse were probably still thanking their lucky stars that the US was in charge of Abu Ghraib rather than Saddam.
But let's admit it: it was still vile and represents either a serious failure in the chain of command or an extremely bad call on the part of the leadership. But vileness is an essential part of war - getting shot in the gut is probably a lot worse, or having your child killed by a stray bullet, and these happen all the time.
The most significant consequence of the scandal has been the revulsion on the part of the US public, already getting queasy about the cost of the campaign in dollars and in US life. I think that everybody in the country had the same visceral reaction, which was: "Oh crap! Let's get the hell out of there!" Perhaps the silver lining to this cloud is that the US public ought to have a more realistic picture of what war involves. There is a good piece in the Times today, this time from Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. He says:
War has always been a wretched business; the tragedy is that it has been a constant feature in the history of man. As Plato famously said: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."
May 27, 2004 - Interesting quote from the Arab News, a Saudi publication. (For full text click here.) It condemns the US for going to war in Iraq to impose western values on an unwilling populace and suggests that the US hopes thereby to control Arab wealth and land. (Bit of a stretch, that last one.) But it acknowledges the problems that Arab societies have failed to deal with, including the routine torture of prisoners, and ends up with an interesting characterization of what the US is up against.
America by its recent actions in the region has exhumed the spirit of colonialist past, it has awakened in us all the suppressed emotions of anger, indignation and self-loathing which we had shut away in the darkest corners of our soul. So the Americans in Iraq are not fighting only Iraqis; they are fighting the ghosts of the Arab world. These armies of ghosts are the five centuries of Arab fossilization, two centuries at least of colonialism and decades of failed political and social revolutions.
Now America is facing these legions of ghosts and it has no way of defeating them. Ghosts never die or tire or fade away but sleep in the shadows until someone or something awakens them.
May 5, 2005 - Having not posted an entry for nearly a year now, I guess this is the time to close my war log down. But first, what is the score card so far, two years after we ejected Saddam?
First, the ususal disclaimer: it will still be years before the full effect of the US's action will be known. Will Iraq become a stable democracy? Will other Arab states feel the pressure to go along? Will the good results in Iraq create gratitude and a reduction of anti-Western sentiment among the Arabs? A decade from now, who knows?
But at least we can answer these questions with some authority as of today: yes, Iraq is (for the moment) a democracy; no, it is not stable; yes, there is some re-thinking of the role of authoritarian governments in the Arab world; no, the net effect of the conflict has not elevated the Arab perception of the West one bit - au contraire, mon frère.
Should we have taken on Saddam? We were in an impossible situation in Iraq following the first Gulf War, in which we had easily repelled Iraq's incursion into Kuwait but lacked a mandate or the will-power to dislodge Iraq's governing elite. Our efforts to incite rebellion were too feeble so we turned to global sanctions and no-fly zones. But these were untenable in the long run - the main effect was to impoverish ordinary Iraqis while the ruling elite grew ever richer by controlling evasions of the sanctions. So we had a tiger by the tail and were starting to worry about how long we could hold on. Something had to be done and Bush II decided to gamble on the direct approach - defeat Saddam's army, depose Saddam and install a democratic government by force.
So now, having deposed Saddam, we have a different tiger by the tail. We'd like to declare victory and go home, but that would leave the country wracked by civil war and it would be our fault. Iraqis would conclude that they were better off under Saddam and that the West had betrayed them yet again. So we feel we have to hang on, hoping we can somehow create a democratically elected government that can impose civil order and govern the country. But the longer we stay there, the more we turn into a punching bag. The Sunni insurgents are experts in portraying their struggle as a crusade (wrong word there, but you know what I mean) against the evil Western occupier, even while they are busy blowing up their fellow Iraqis.
Another problem is that we are relying on our armed forces as ambassadors of good will. This is a little like inviting the Oakland Raiders to a garden party. You can tell them to be on their best behavior, but things are still going to get broken. No matter how well our troops may be trained in the art of warfare, soldiers are generally crude, violent and xenophobic, qualities that serve them well in carrying out their primary mission. When our leaders talk piously about winning the battle for hearts and minds, I wonder what the hell they are thinking.
I've got to hand it to Powell. Use overwhelming force and know how to get the hell out, he said. We weren't so bad on adhering to the first rule, despite some critics at the time, but I have some real doubts about the second.
So, setting aside the impossible situation we were in before the war, what are the costs and benefits of the war so far? The immediate costs to the US of going into Iraq include the obvious - 1,500 US soldiers dead, billions of dollars spent. Every casualty is a tragedy, every dollar spent is taken from another worthy cause; nevertheless, as wars go, however, these are small change. The long term impact of the war depends on how it has affected US and allied strategic interests, both in terms of bolstering national security and regularizing trade in a crucial strategic commodity, oil. I believe that things look pretty bad on these fronts now. Do the Arabs like us more? No. Do they respect or fear us more? They probably have a good respect for our abilities in conventional warfare but they are more than ever aware of our vulnerabilities in guerrila warfare, where our superior weaponry counts for little and our people's taste for atrocity is weak. Are Arabs less radicalized? No - we are just starting to see some new acts of terrorism against Westerners in Egypt, which hasn't been seen for years. Iraq's oil production is up, but it is hardly stable, nor has it matched the increase in demand over the same period. Are we going to be able to make a dignified withdrawal while leaving a reasonably stable society in Iraq? Not any time soon.
I am even a bit concerned about the flowering of democracy in Iraq. Democracy doesn't just mean that you have elections; it means above all that you agree to be a good loser. The Sunni insurgency is all about being a bad loser. I do however have some real admiration for the Kurds and the Shiites, who must be very tempted to abandon the rule of law and to meet the insurgency with some atrocities of their own. It is possible that their self-restraint will yet show the whole nation how democracy really works.
I am not sure what Bush could have done to get us out of the hole we were in following the first Gulf war. Based on our success in Afghanistan, perhaps we could have used financial and logistical support to enable anti-Saddam groups to do the overthrowing, so that we would not have the unenviable role of occupier? Pretty much any solution seems attractive compared to the situation we are in now. But I don't really know what to think. I am depressed at the increasing level of hatred in the world and worried that it bodes ill for the future. At the same time, I feel it myself - I find myself singing "...they all hate us anyhow - let's drop the big one now." (Randy Newman in "Political Science".)
I'd like this to be my end-of-war log. But it's just my end of war-log.