Friday, September 05, 2003

Holy moly. It IS the longest and most rambling post I've ever written.

At long last, the next installment of the sporadic online debate (more like a conversation) between PragueBlog's Steve Hercher and I about Iraq. You can call this "Two Expat American Liberals Talk About the War" because that's pretty much all it is. It's a pretty amorphous debate, if indeed that's what it is, because the last time we had a back-and-forth was nearly a month ago, and quite a lot has happened in a month. So if you're joining this conversation in the middle, here's a recap.

To start with, Steve has been a solid supporter of the war from the beginning. I've been more skeptical, or at least conflicted. In the run-up to war, I spent plenty of time arguing with people, especially my Czech friends, that going to war to unseat Saddam Hussein would have overall positive consequences, and was therefore a good thing. I supported Bush's saber-rattling policy, and if you favor a saber-rattling policy, you run the risk that you'll eventually have to use that saber, if only to preserve your own credibility.

Yet when Bush decided to launch the war without the cover of a single international organization, I suddenly turned against it -- a position I firmly stand behind today, not that it makes a whit of difference. I admit I have some trouble explaining my change of heart, if that's what it was. Although I believed in the morality of the war, I thought it was wrong to do it "alone," which in practice is a code word for UN approval. (As a firm believer in NATO, I would have supported a NATO-led war without UN approval, like Kosovo. On that note, see this speech by Wesley Clark, who announces his POTUS candidacy on or about Sept 19. We'd have had the same problems with the pesky French and Germans, so it makes little difference.)

Steve wrote: "In conscience, I can't accept any scenario in which the absolute moral justification for the removal of the regime isn't admitted as a first principle." Yes, I agree. A bit of honest moral arithmetic shows that the regime had to go. Saddam was not just any evil potentate, but probably the worst of them all, and if you deny that, as many on the anti-war left have, then you simply haven't done your homework and there's no point in arguing. On a moral level, I believe this war was just, and I see how many would want to leave it at that. If it's right, unfurrow thy brow and just do it! If the French or whoever else doesn't agree, screw them!

Then again, as an absolute moral principle, O.J. Simpson should be in jail and Robert Mugabe should be dead, yet I wouldn't support a vigilante lynch mob going after O.J., nor would I suggest that the CIA assassinate Mugabe.

[Belch] Where was I?

Oh yes, our last exchange. I cited this Slate article by Fred Kaplan touching on the finer points of nation building, an area which, to say the least, is not George Bush's forte. I made a pessimistic prediction that Bush would high-tail it out of Iraq as soon as Saddam Hussein is killed or captured, and that civil war would ensue. To put it another way, I predicted that we'd leave Iraq in worse shape than that in which we'd found it, an ignoble retreat from the grand plans for a redesign of Mid-East politics that formed, in part, the noble justification for this war.

The title of Fred Kaplan's article refered to "the former Bushie who knew Iraq would go to pot." You responded correctly by pointing out:

Well, it hasn't gone to pot - yet. Remember a week or two ago all the blog posts about all the good news and progress in Iraq that is (almost deliberately) not being reported. It's WAY too soon to make any judgments on the success or failure of the post war period in Iraq. The received wisdom among the war's opponents just a few months after its end that it's going badly or has already failed smacks more than a little bit of being a wish. "I told you so" arguments are diluted a bit anyway by the aim of the arguer to cover him or herself in glory.
I might ask, one month later: Has Iraq gone to pot yet? It's a facetious question, and forgive me if it's comes across as snide or "I told you so." But since our last exchange, bad has gone to worse (the Jordanian embassy bombing, which took place the day after the above-quoted message) to much, much worse (the UN bombing) to looking pretty awful indeed (Hakim's assassination). No, Iraq has not gone to pot. As Fareed Zakaria put it: "It might already be too late to achieve a great success in Iraq. But it is not too late to avoid a humiliating failure."

This exchange began because I defended Josh Marshall's dog-after-a-car pursuance of the 16 words in the State of the Union. I still think it's right to harp on that. Here's why: First, many of us weren't absolutely certain that going to war was the right thing. There were pros and cons on both sides, and reasonable people fell both ways. For some, the bullshit about Iraq having a nuclear weapons program (along with WMD in general and ties to Al Qaeda) tipped the scales. And if the government's to have any sort of accountability to the public, it can't fudge something of that magnitude. (I, for one, assumed that Iraq's 12,000,000-page December declaration was total bunk, based on what the administration said; and at the time, I was quite convinced by Colin Powell's UN presentation. Now I'm not so sure on the former, and I feel like a total sucker on the latter.)

Second, it's a classic example of the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity issuing from the White House. (If you haven't already, check out this piece at the Daily Howler. The author rips the Washington Monthly's "Mendacity Index" as "puerile," "embassassing" and "fatuous" -- but then goes on to list all the lies the liberal media has allowed, and continues to allow, Bush to get away with.)

Finally -- and most importantly -- the misstated evidence of WMD truly gets to the heart about what's wrong with Bush & Co.'s approach to the war: Ideology always seems to trump fact. They believe their own propaganda, again and again and again.

You are correct about the galling tendency among the anti-war left to say "I told you so." You're also right that some of the negative reporting from Iraq has had a certain wishful-thinking quality to it. That's bad. But the responses of the hawks have been at least equally infuriating. There has been a tendency on the part of most hawks to discount any and all evidence of profound miscalculations on the part of the U.S. as the bitter grumbling of the anti-war liberal media. ("You say that war's going badly? Yeah well you would say the war's going badly so shut up.") I think that's even worse, because the stakes are higher than a simple game of "told ya."

Saying that Iraq has not gone to pot "yet" sort of begs the question: At what point can we say that it has gone to pot? At any point? From a humanitarian point of view, I don't see how the removal of Saddam Hussein is enough, by itself, to justify the war if we don't see if we don't see tangible and widespread evidence of improvement (or at least reasonably expected future improvement) in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Right now, on day-to-day, week-to-week level, we've made life in Iraq much worse. The goal hasn't been reached. There's been no "Mission Accomplished." We haven't succeeded yet, and in fact, it seems we're doing quite badly, the ongoing denial of the administration notwithstanding. Things are certainly going much worse than we (or at least I) expected.

That's the question for the hawks now: At one point would you admit that the war's going badly? When Don Rumsfeld says so? Never? Sometimes I get the feeling that even if Rummy himself were to come right out and say we're in quagmire, many would accuse him of going wobbly. (I can just imagine it: "Are things going badly? Yes. Are we in a quagmire? Gosh, you could say that." Not bloody likely.)

It reminds me of that screed I wrote a long time ago about the blogosphere's flood of media criticism. If you're too selective about which news your trust based on the slant of the source, sooner or later you're bound to get something royally wrong. And Bush did. Indeed, in this regard Bush is the perfect president for the blogging era. He believes what he wants to believe, regardless of what's happening on CNN, because hell, he gets all the news he needs from MyDefenseSecretary.com.

So.... All that said, it would be nice if at this point everybody just threw away their hawk and dove hats and just focused on the problems at hand. Openly and realistically. That seems to be happening, thankfully, by sheer force of necessity. The turning point was probably the UN bombing. In my post one month ago, I was way off on at least one thing. I wrote, "So who's going to stand up and demand we send more troops to Iraq? A Republican? A Democrat? Try nobody. It's the politically unsayable." Try again. Today, just about every sensible person, right and left, is calling for more troops in Iraq. By "sensible people" I don't include Donald Rumsfeld, Imam Moqtada Sadr or Hakim's fundamentalist followers. (Can anybody explain to me why Rumsfeld, he of such pathetic company, is still in charge of the Pentagon? It's not like the armed forces pay him much attention anymore.)

Today, there's the important question of the UN and the Iraqi administration. First of all, anybody who doesn't expect France and Germany to tell us to take our resolution and shove it -- or who expects the Indian government to risk the wrath of a billion angry voters, most of whom want nothing to do with Iraq, by lending the US a hand -- has a rather tenuous understanding of human nature.

But beyond that, I think giving more control to the UN -- that is, more political control than Bush currently has in mind -- is actually a good idea.

That's a big change of heart. After Saddam fell, I argued (not on this blog, unfortunately) that the UN should not get involved in Iraqi's physical and political reconstruction. The UN is a bureaucracy, I said; the UN means slow-moving committees and debates and resolution with four-digit numbers and long acronyms that nobody can ever remember. What Iraq needs is immediate action, I said; they need the power and water turned back on, and they need security re-established, and they need it immediately, and only the United States Army and a U.S.-led civilian administration is in a position to do that.

Um, that was in what, April? Sorry to be so impatient, but I'm ready to give the UN a go at it. If the Security Council backs a multinational, U.S.-led security force with a UN political administration (much as described by David Ignatius, for instance), I'll be impressed if it can achieve anything remotely close to Bosnia-style stability. I'd even call it success. I don't think it's too early to say the administration is pursuing a failed policy in post-war Iraq; indeed, it's becoming increasingly dangerous not to own up to it. To Bush & Co., I believe Dee Snider of Twisted Sister said it pretty well: "If that's your best, your best won't do."

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Speaking of meat, here's some salacious slaughterhouse reading from the comments section. This is just one tidbit. There's a lot more.

If you get a hog in the chute that refuses to move, you take a meat hook and clip it into his anus. You try to do this by clipping the hipbone. Then you drag him backwards. Your dragging these hogs alive, and a lot of times the meat hook rips out of the bunghole. I've seen hams--thighs--completely ripped open. I've also seen intestines come out. If the hog collapses near the front of the chute, you shove a meat hook into his cheek and drag him forward.
Just another day's work to bring home the bacon. Mmmmm....
For my own selfish purposes, I'm collecting some articles about what the Europeans think about sending troops to Iraq and putting them here and here and here and here for safekeeping. A list of more stories here, and here the Hindustan Times says "America has found out at last that the taste of the pudding is in the eating." There's a BBC European press review from two weeks ago here. Suedeutsche Zeitung goes ballistic here. RFI does a great French press review, but they don't archive it, so I'll have to lift quotes: "LIBERATION says that however much he tries to package his call on the UN to send a multinational force to Iraq, Bush's request is nothing less than a humiliation. This, given the contempt the US administration showed for the world body in the first eight months of this year. LIBERATION says that Iraq is on the brink of chaos. Meanwhile, the other American so-called ''victory'' - in Afghanistan - has given way to a taliban counter-offensive. This proves that America, however strong it may think it is, cannot be the sherriff of the planet, says LIBERATION. Neither, says the paper, is the US a nation-builder... because it lacks the moral authority. And that void is a gift to terrorists, says LIBERATION, which calls for pragmatism from Washington." Well then! (If you're still reading, check out Le Figaro's scientific explanation of why pastis turns cloudy when you add water.) And speaking of reviews of the French press, praise the LORD for EuroSavant. And guess what the dish of the day is over at the German press review on Deutsche Welle, which earlier said many or most Euro papers think the new Iraqi cabinet is a "pupper government." Back in India, SWAMINATHAN S ANKLESARIA AIYAR (at least I think that's his name -- his column is called "Swaminomics") offers a rousing (well, sort of) defense of George Bush to his Indian readers, nearly all of whom think he's going down, down, down.
Seven years ago today I got on an airplane and moved to Prague. Egad.
Much as I may be opposed to eating meat, I have to say the Schwarzenegger egg-throwing incident was handled with aplomb: "'This guy owes me bacon now."

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Chuck D says he has respect for Elvis.

This despite having once uttered the line, "'The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music."

I posted this because it just goes to show you shouldn't take everybody at face value when they say "XYZ doesn't mean shit to me." Note, however, that Chuck D says nothing about the Duke (as in, "you see, straight-up racist that sucker was simple and plain / motherfuck him and John Wayne").
"Pah, they can eat their canapes alone." Interesting profile, also in FAZ, of Germany's tough-guy defense minister, the leather-clad motorcyclist Peter Struck.
Bundeswehr widens Afghanistan engagement, reports Frankfurter Allegemeine.

The German government plans to extend the German troops' mission in Afghanistan beyond the capital Kabul, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on Wednesday, calling an expansion of the German troops' scope of action "sensible, necessary and responsible."

... An extension of the UN's Isaf mandate has so far been resisted by the United States.

... Asked whether Germany would send troops to Iraq next, [Defense Minister Peter] Struck told Welt am Sonntag newspaper, "No. There is no UN mandate for Iraq." Schroeder confirmed, "Unlike some others, we're not considering a military engagement." A UN resolution has become a possibility, however, following the recent attack on the UN's Baghdad office.

"We must not shy away from our responsibility," the [opposition] CDU's Merkel [who opposes sending more troops to Afghanistan] told Spiegel newsmagazine. "Germany can't principally rule out a contribution to a UN mission in Iraq," she said.
The extension of peacekeeping forces beyond Kabul would be good news, but it's strange this didn't get much coverage in the English language press. Suspicious, I dare say.
This is a sad and gruesome story. From what I gather on CNN, a pizza delivery man in Pennsylvania went "to a remote area" to deliver a pizza. Whoever ordered the pizza then wrapped a time bomb around his neck and gave him instructions to rob a bank. Pizza man, bomb around his neck, robs the bank. The cops then caught and arrested him.

One presumes the pizza guy had instructions to return to the guy who put the bomb on him, so he could give the guy the stolen money and get the bomb off his neck. Did the cops let him go? Maybe follow him? Try and catch the culprit and get the key to defuse the bomb? No. They just let the pizza man sit there on the ground, handcuffed, until the bomb went off.

As he sat on the ground, Wells [the pizza man] said, "Why is nobody trying to get this thing off me?" and "I don't have a lot of time."

Wells also described someone arming the device and strapping it to him.

"He pulled a key out and started a timer. I heard the thing ticking when he did it. It's going to go off. I'm not lying."

Minutes later, the explosives detonated.
Needless to say, pizza man's dead.

The FBI now says the police couldn't have done anything to stop it. Um, no. That's completely unbelievable. If there was absolutely no way to defuse the bomb, why in the world would the guy have robbed the bank to begin with?

More stories about this here.
Inspired by The Daily Czech, I just wasted a bunch of time adding a cute little poll to the bottom right. This week I attempt to ascertain who people blame for the folding of the Prague Pill. If you're don't know anything about that, just vote for whatever sounds best. The software I found isn't nearly as good as Petr's, but I couldn't be bothered trying to figure out the Czech instructions at BlueBoard.cz. And people, in case you're unclear on this, it's a joke. Now kindly cast your ballots.
If any former Prague expats were coming under the impression that movie release lag time has reduced significantly, I regret to inform you that I just saw The Hours at the cinema the other night. Man, what a piece of crap. I can see why it might be worth renting on video -- the collection of talent, along with Nicole Kidman's prosthetic proboscis and an interesting plot surprise at the end, would alone be worth the rental price on a rainy day -- but when the cards are down, this is a pointless stew of maudlin mush. The moral of the story: Sometimes life is sort of hard, and sometimes we feel all angsty for no good reason, and sometimes we even feel trapped, especially if you're a woman or a famous writer. And the hours, the hours.... (cue Philip Glass score). I'm not terribly well-read in Virginia Wolff, but what I do know of her does not comport with this irritating portrayal of psychosis. You almost feel happy when she does herself in so her beleaguered husband can get on with his life. Claire Danes, meanwhile, was better in her brief part here than in T3, but I sometimes wonder if she should just let the script do the work, like the best actors do, and cut out all those facial expressions. Steep was great, Moore's been better, and Ed Harris could have used another font, if not an entirely different script. And what is with John C. Reilly playing the same hapless cuckolded husband, over and over and over again?

If you don't take my word for it, read David Edelstein's review on Slate.
Robert Kagan, the chief theorist behind the United States' aggressive new foreign policy is positively brutal (not to mention hopelessly pessimistic) about what's going on in Iraq right now (via TalkingPointsMemo and other places). An odd hawk-dove consensus is emerging. Despite the fact that over half of all Americans actually want to get out of Iraq, something's definitely up when you have both Robert Kagan and Howard Dean demanding that we flood the zone.
Radio Prague offers a breathless review of Cafe Imperial. They don't mention that the service is slow, often obnoxious, and the waiters have been known to try to rip you off. Yes, this place has some faded grandeur, but there's no excuse being nasty to the clients. It's happened on a few occasions, and I've heard complaints from others as well. As for the stale doughnuts you can throw at other customers for Kc 2000, it's a neat gimmick, but the problem is they don't specify if you can pelt the wait staff and management as well, who are a far more deserving of a pummeling with jelly and koblihy. I'm sure you could find some complaints about our Tulip Cafe -- the service can be less than efficient (we're working on it; the expanded garden has been a challenge, to be sure) and there's a good chance Steve wouldn't like the hamburger -- but one thing we're not is obnoxious to customers. Expats tend to become immune to it (indeed, some even invest the surly waiter or waitress with a certain charm) but I think that still counts for a lot in the Czech capital. We recently fired a waitress for snapping rudely at a customer. If you're ever mistreated at Tulip, start taking names and talk to the manager and/or me.
Speaking of bad, I have a bad feeling about this...

Monday, September 01, 2003

For some time, I've been planning an overland trip from Prague to India over the silk-road-hippie-trail. The question, of course, is what to do about friggin' Afghanistan. I have a friend who's living in Kabul, working as the Central Asian correspondent for a world famous magazine. He's the eternal optimist. Before he left, and following a 2-3 week jaunt over there, he told me things weren't as bad there as the newspapers made them sound. I asked pointedly if, for instance, it was safe to travel across the country. He said yes, provided you travel during the day. That was earlier this year.

In late July I inquired again about the logistics, and whether it was reasonable to travel outside Kabul without risking death or kidnapping. The response: "You know I'm an optimistic and upbeat sort but my advice to your overland venture is don't do it! It simply isn't safe. That is, you could probably do it and have no problems, but there is a chance things could go pear shaped. I'm travelling a lot here and it sometimes frightens the hell out of me." This is a guy who's covered something like six wars. If he's scared, forget it.

Still, I was resolutely assured that the road from Mashad, Iran (one of the holiest cities of Shi'ite Islam, after Najaf -- yes that Najaf) to Herat, Afghanistan was "completely safe and doable." It was penetrating deeper into the country that was the problem. So I cooked up some dreams of a quick detour into Afghanistan and back, only as far as Herat. (Read more about Herat and the crazy guy who runs it, Ismail Khan, here.)

Not gonna happen. On Aug. 20 I got an email: "Um. I hate to say it but things are getting more violent here, significantly more violent. Herat is still safe but I just wonder if you wouldn't be better delaying your trip."

Says Slate's Today's Papers: "The NYT, after dilly-dallying for a while, finally fronts the upsurge in attacks" in Afghanistan. On Sunday, two American soldiers were killed in a 90-minute gun battle. But the Times' story is much bigger. Here's how it starts:

The Taliban, backed by new volunteers from Pakistan, are regrouping and steadily expanding their attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan, their former stronghold, according to Afghan officials, Western diplomats and captured fighters.
Here's the full article. The Taliban is the most putrid arm of Islamofascism on the face of the planet and fully deserving of complete annihilation. With the worsening chaos in Iraq, it's certainly worth questioning if the U.S. needs to be sending more troops to Afghanistan as well. I also wonder if the United States, with its overstretched military and its mind-boggling budget deficit, can afford such an extended dual deployment. I think it should. So I can go to Afghanistan? Sure, maybe that has something to do with it. But far more importantly so it doesn't go all bad again. Afghanistan bad seems really bad.
From Salam Pax's hilarious account of his house being searched by American soldiers:
Now the guy who was in charge starts trying to cover his ass and asks a lot of pointless questions, one of the more surreal ones was "so if one of your sons is writing for a foreign newspaper why are you still here?".
Wait a sec. This sounds suspiciously like a question that could only be asked by a customs official at JFK. You mean they're sending those guys to Iraq now?
Snicker, snicker. I'm a vegetarian, if you count "fruits of the sea" as vegetables. If I, age 29, had come back in time and appeared to me, age 19, and told me that in ten years' time I'd be a actively involved in promoting, cooking and selling stuff like this, I'd probably have crawled into a hole and died.

Today, I admit it that I'm a thoroughly compromised individual. Aren't we all. Fortunately, I have a) a bit more perspective on things and b) business partners on whom I can blame this state of affairs. (If Tulip were just me, it'd be 100% vegetarian, and we'd have a lot fewer customers.)