Monday, November 27, 2006

Peter Kurth's Crank Call: Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays, and Big Pricks

So here it is, the week after Thanksgiving, way up in the hills of Vermont (well, Charlotte). We’ve “seen some sunshine” recently, as the meteorologists say, but it’s been the kind of fleeting, “almost” sunshine you can easily miss if you’re doing something else. In Vermont, at the end of November, you often have to rush outside to see the sun, which, as far as I’m concerned, exceeds the limits of sun-worship.

So, we’d better face the facts: Winter’s on the way. The light is getting dimmer. There’s an indescribable feeling in the air – a combination of huge relief that Thanksgiving is over and utter dread that Christmas is coming. Once again, Americans are marching to the tune of “Ready, Set, Shop!” According to Monday’s Los Angeles Times, “Holiday shoppers came out early and spent big across the nation this weekend,” shelling out “an average of $360.15” per person, “18.9% more than last year,” while mere hundreds died in Iraq. Or, as blogger Jason Miller put it on Thomas Paine’s Corner, commenting on Thanksgiving week’s notorious “Black Friday,” “The unwavering disciples [of American capitalism] charged into the fray to avoid the unthinkably tragic fate of dying without having the most toys.”

Amen. And “Black Friday” isn’t even “Cyber Monday,” when American workers, loosening the goose fat from their middles, were projected to spend something like $32 billion on the Web in a single day, once they got back to the office and saw what a huge waste of time it was for them to be there when there’s so much shopping to be done. The Times reports that, as of Monday, “shoppers were encouraged by deals on big-ticket electronics, including DVD players, high-definition televisions and new video game consoles.”

All these “consoles,” I’m afraid, are why the Islamo-fascists hate us so much. Consoles and cars and cell phones and diamonds -- lots of diamonds. I’ve seen more ads for diamonds on TV lately than I have in the last twenty years. They seem to pop up automatically between commercials for Wendy's and all those soothing cartoon butterflies telling you what a wonderful night’s sleep you’re going to have if you only “ask your doctor” and don’t mind the nausea, headache, dizziness, grogginess, indigestion, diarrhea and “certain rare but fatal side-effects” that go along with it. But the truth can no longer be doubted by any reasonable mind: Ours is an “ideology of freedom” and theirs is an “ideology of hate” -- even though everyone the LAT managed to interview at the malls on Saturday wished to hell “the holidays” were over already. “I just can’t take another minute of this!” was the general refrain.

Well, as my mother used to say when I was growing up, “Oh, Christmas!” -- it was one of her more frequent and reliable outbursts of frustration. She’s developed a few stronger ones since, “but that’s because of George W. Bush,” as she’s prepared to swear on oath. My mother is the kind of person who actually calls the White House and tells the operators what she thinks. Frequently, they hang up on her, being underpaid customer-service representatives with a lot of shopping to do, but when that happens she just calls them back and gets another one. Once she called the White House to say that the president’s penis was “big enough already” and that he didn’t need to bomb Iraq to make it any bigger. She even offered to “change his diaper” if they’d only send him back to Crawford. Now, she thinks that the best way for the U.S. to get out of Iraq is to withdraw our troops immediately and make amends to the Iraqi people by sending them “the most expensive Christmas gift we have to offer -- the whole Bush dynasty."

“What could possibly go wrong?” my mother asks. “Why, it’d be a cakewalk!” Certainly, if the media promoted the Bushes as heavily as they promote Christmas – well, come to think of it, they do. Since the recent elections, a pure disaster for the clan, we’ve had more Bush-family news than you can shake a stick at. First, the Iraq Study Group, under the leadership of James A. Baker, the Bushes’ famous “consigliere,” is stepping in on 41’s behalf to rescue 43’s presidency. Next, 41 himself was in the Middle East, whining and pleading and practically bursting into tears because a lot of people in Abu Dhabi think his son’s a liar and a creep.

"My son is an honest man!” 41 exclaimed. "He is working hard for peace! This son is not going to back away!” And then, irrelevantly, “How come everybody wants to come to the United States if the United States is so bad?”

Meantime, little Barbara – or was it Jenna? – had her purse snatched in Argentina, right under the noses of her security detail. She lost her driver’s license (not a bad thing, from what I hear) and all her credit cards, but I’m sure there are plenty more where those came from. Finally, sister Doro, “the best-kept secret in America,” as her mother says, has “burst out of the shadows” with a book, My Father, My President, which chronicles in weepy and revoltingly sentimental tones “the life and times” of 41, but seems reluctant to name or even mention 43, whom the Washington Post reports is currently sulking in his tent, “fuming,” “venting” and “in a funk” over his dwindling power.

By the sound of her interviews, the “twice-married” Doro – and there I was thinking it had to be “one man, one woman!” – couldn’t write a grocery list by herself, but if we’re publishing phony, fraudulent memoirs, we might as well publish them all. I’m sure there are lots of people who’d rather pay $8000 on Ebay for a copy of O. J. Simpson’s If I Did It than find Doro’s little tome under their tree this year. Well, that’s the price of monarchy, I guess, and the Iraqis are welcome to it. But at least we haven’t had to watch a Republican campaign commercial for – what is it now? – nearly four weeks.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Peter Kurth's Crank Call: What's the Mommy Party Done for Us Lately?

{Mountain Philosopher's note: Peter Kurth is a friend of a friend, which makes him....well, brilliant. See his bio over there on the right for more info. I'm thrilled that he's agreed to let me post his bi-weekly column, Crank Call, which also appears in the Vermont alternative weekly, Seven Days.}

“Oh frabjous day!” as Lewis Carroll wrote in one of the Alice books. It’s all so wonderful you could scream, or do somersaults, or anything you want. Such as head a “mega-church” in Colorado Springs and have sleazy gay sex at the same time, and buy crystal meth and throw it down the toilet -- right! -- if that’s what makes you happy. At the moment, I don’t care what your fetish is, just knowing that for once, at last, the people of these states knew what they were doing and threw the bums out.

I’m talking about last week’s elections, of course. What else is anyone talking about? I still have no hope for the future, but, God, it was nice to see! We aren’t brain-dead, after all, are we? Are we?

I hope not. Because, frankly, the only thing the Democratic “sweep to Congress” has proved so far is that we’ve got a long way to go to undo the damage the Bush administration has wrought over the last six years. And this column isn’t titled “Crank Call” for nothing -- I’m already tired of Nancy Pelosi and her gavel. Sure, it’s nice to see “a woman” third in line to the throne, after Baby and Cheney, but Bush wasn’t entirely wrong when he asked, in his last-minute stomp through parts of the country you’ve never heard of, “What’s their plan?”

The fact that Bush doesn’t and never did have “a plan” beyond corporate fascism isn’t, right now, the issue. The fact that this trust-funded weasel wouldn’t know “a plan” if it burned a cigarette mark on his arm at a “Skull and Bones” initiation isn’t, right now, the issue. Even the fact that Rumsfeld has finally been booted out in favor of a soulless CIA spook isn’t, right now, the issue. The issue is: Where are we going, and how? Even Maureen Dowd of The New York Times is a bit concerned about this.

“This will be known as the year macho politics failed,” says Dowd, who is known to have some issues about the difference between men and women, “mainly because it was macho politics by marshmallow men." In other words, it would have been OK if they weren't marshmallows. Maureen is the daughter of a New York cop, and Gloriosky! does she know about men: "Voters were sick of phony swaggering, blustering and bellicosity, absent competency and accountability. They were ready to trade in the deadbeat Daddy party for the sheltering Mommy party.”

By “Mommy” Ms. Dowd means “Speaker-elect Pelosi,” and, I suppose, the dreaded Hillary Clinton. But what would happen if there were an election where Mommy and Daddy didn’t enter into it – where it was simply assumed that anyone of voting age was capable of making his or her own decisions?

In Vermont, of course, we all knew that Rich Tarrant would lose – no conversation there. But did we really know what we were voting for? “Anything But Bush,” I suppose, which is a good slogan, and which should be branded on the back of every car and truck that otherwise says “Support Our Troops!”

And now what? “Moderation?” “Bipartisanship?” “Consensus?” All those things that the Bush administration has so far shown such an amazing capacity to observe! Are we supposed to believe that "Mommy" can fix this? Why do I feel that I’m about to open a box of “Lucky Charms” – speaking of marshmallows -- with those awful bits of “freeze-dried” junk sucking up space where the cereal ought to be? My brother, Robert Kurth, put it very well recently in a letter to The Poughkeepsie Journal:

Prepare yourselves for a torrent of news and opinion about a "new direction" in Iraq. Be prepared, too, for unvarnished accounts from our military that the level of violence there is much higher than we have been told heretofore. … I pray that an honest and thorough assessment of the occupation of Iraq can improve the situation for American soldiers and Iraqis alike. I support a Congressional resolution that the United States disavows any intention of permanent military bases and of any claim to Iraqi oil.

But I refuse to accept that the only way forward must be balanced and bipartisan. This arrogant and incompetent administration has earned much more than just "a thumpin'" at the polls. They have earned subpoenas, prosecution and jail time. The sooner the better. Happy Holidays.

To this I can’t add much, except to say that if you don’t believe the Kurth brothers, you can consult the “national” pundits, who are already beginning to worry that Ding-Dong’s “thumpin’” won’t amount to a hill of beans so long as the idea of the “unitary executive” is allowed to stand; so long as the “Patriot Act” is in force; so long as this administration – or any administration -- is allowed to wiretap and spy on Americans without warrant; so long as “the President” can determine, at his whim and will, who and what are “enemy combatants” and can have them arrested and imprisoned without right to counsel or, for that matter, any evidence that he or she has broken the law.

You can have all the “Mommys” you want, Maureen – all the “Madame Speakers” in the world -- but if these and other outrages aren’t removed, it won’t make a spickin’ lit of difference. That expression the Kurth brothers get from their father, a gen-yoo-ine Texan, now a converted Muslim, who can’t go to his mosque in Fredericksburg, Virginia – gallant, gallant Virginia, which swang the Senate for the Democrats! – without knowing that he and his whole family are under the watch of the Feds.

Prove us wrong, voters. Prove us wrong.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Assassinations, Coups, and a Blood-Drenched Desert

Last week, NY Post columnist Ralph Peters unambiguously called for the assassination of Muqtada al-Sadar -- the headline, in typical NY Post subtlety, demanded KILL MUQTADA NOW. Chap tipped me to this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column by Jack Kelly which seconds Peters' motion:

So why is the Moqtada al-Sadr still alive?

When Coalition Provisional Authority chairman Paul Bremer issued an arrest warrant for al Sadr in April of 2004, we were dissuaded from serving it by Iraqi politicians and clerics who claimed they could "control" him. Now he's controlling them.

Whenever we've attempted to apply a political "solution" to what is essentially a military problem, bad things have happened. An example is when we broke off the first battle of Fallujah in May of 2004 at the insistence of those Sunni leaders (more or less) supporting the government. This handed al-Qaida a major (though fortunately only a temporary) victory.

We hesitate to act decisively against Mr. Sadr in order to preserve the facade of Iraqi democracy and sovereignty, even though Mr. Maliki's hapless government wouldn't last a week if U.S. troops withdrew.

To maintain this fiction, we won't take actions Mr. Maliki doesn't approve of. But he depends upon the 28 votes Mr. Sadr controls in the Iraqi parliament in order to maintain his tenuous grasp on power. Prodding from the United States has so far been insufficient to get him to give them up. Mr. Maliki has declared which side he's on, and it isn't ours.

If we act against Mr. Sadr, there will be an uprising. It will be bloody. But continued inaction pretty much guarantees slow motion defeat.

And then yesterday, Peters calls for yet another well-placed bullet:

Our greatest setback in Iraq may be that country's undoing: It has proven impossible to develop an honest, nonpartisan police establishment anywhere in the country's Arab provinces. The police aren't feared by criminals, but by law-abiding citizens.

The secret police are back, in the form of death squads. And the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki looks perfectly happy with the situation.

American advisers risk their lives in the struggle to build Iraqi police units committed to doing their duty. We've equipped them, trained them and led from the front.

In gratitude, Iraq's police have ambushed our troops, fielded death squads less restrained than those under Saddam, stolen everything they could steal in preparation for a future civil war - and, apparently, funneled U.S.-provided arms to militias, insurgents and terrorists.

Our efforts to develop good cops have failed (garbage in, garbage out). We need to stop wasting our efforts. Shielded by government ministers and parliamentarians, the police are so out of control that there's no longer any hope of weeding out the bad guys. Instead, the bad guys are weeding out the good guys: Honest cops get killed. By other cops.

The situation's desperate. We need to revamp our strategy (to the extent that we have one). For all its shortcomings, the Iraqi army has been a far greater success than the police - whether we're speaking of cops on the beat or paramilitary commandos.

It's time to abandon the cops. Let the anti-American elements in the Maliki government have them. Don't continue to strengthen our enemies. Concentrate on developing and expanding the army.

Why? Here's where the truth gets still uglier. As dearly as we believe in democracy, Iraq's Arabs are proving that they're incapable of the political, social and moral maturity necessary to run an elected government.

Casting ballots alone doesn't make a democracy. The government has to function. And to protect all of its citizens.

In the coming months, we may find that the only hope of restoring order is a military government. It sounds repellent, but a U.S.-backed coup may be the only alternative to endless anarchy.

OK. One at a time here. Kelly concedes that the assassination of al-Sadr will result in a bloody uprising, a noxious tonic that only goes down when confronted with the alternative of a "slow motion defeat." I'll posit that Kelly's crystal ball isn't any better than mine. And my crystal ball tells me that the assassination of al-Sadr will merely speed up our defeat.

Wouldn't our assassination of a leading Shiite cleric royally inflame the broader Iraqi Shia community, even those that think that al-Sadr is a kook, if they see the assassination as a proxy action on the behalf of the Sunnis? At the moment, we're mostly fighting Sunni insurgents - do we want to add another significant front with a mere 138,000 pairs of boots with almost nothing in reserve? Nowhere do Kelly nor Peters acknowledge the fact the Army and Marines are dealing with both physical exhaustion and significant degradation of their hardware. Do we truly have the manpower and equipment to deal with a new significant offensive? The situation would, quite likely, certainly leapfrog to total chaos, American casualties would skyrocket, and the remaining home front support for the war would evaporate and Congress would pull the plug.

In the post below, I mentioned that Maliki might want to read up on what happened to Vietnam's Diem. Looks like Ralph Peters was thinking the same thing with his open call for a coup. That "solution" looks like a disaster to me.

Any replacement government won't have the veneer of being indigenous. Peters is quite correct to call bullshit on the Bush Administration's fairy tale that purple thumbs alone make a democracy but glosses over the reality they do at least provide some cover. "Military government?" What does that mean? We off a Shiite who's tight with Iran, who enjoys at least some fair measure of popularity in the Shia community. We off a moderate Shiite AND off the radical Shiite (al-Sadr) and we have a rather unified Shia Iraq wanting to kill every American they see. What do we really replace Maliki with? What faction within the existing Iraqi military will have a significantly different outlook and vision than Maliki? Killing Maliki and replacing him with a body without the imprimatur of the "consent of the governed" will make that government an obvious puppet and a terminal inflammatory target.

And where does a Maliki coup leave the neocon foreign policy base for Bush? Maliki is Zalmay Khalilzad's (American ambassador to Iraq) guy. Given Khalizad's history, he's probably got the stomach for a coup but his credibility within Iraq disappears. The one American who seems to have his head screwed on straight from the perspective of the Iraqis turns his back while murder went down... I can't see it. And what of Kristol, Frum, Perle, and the others who will see the last vestige of their fantasy of democracy in Iraq crushed in the wake of such a coup? Most Americans aren't in thrall to the neocon vision as they may have been in 2002 and 2003 but as prominent talking heads, the neocons still provide significant media cover for American blood-letting in Iraq. They have nothing left to support if a democratic Iraq is permanently put on hold. Their collective desertion of Bush would weaken him even further and would likely speed demands for a withdrawal.

We have no clearly good choices. Peters and Kelly are right about one thing -- what we're doing isn't working and appears to be fatally leading towards defeat. The new Congress and Senate will have a difficult choice laid before them: take a chance on a new, more muscular, and at least in the short-term, far bloodier policy with no clear guarantee for victory OR a phased withdrawal which absolutely guarantees no victory and most likely results in the Democrats being labeled as national security wimps for another generation. Will Senator Clinton want to continue to cultivate her aura of toughness and say "no thanks." What will Senator Obama say -- quite possibly his moment of truth is imminent.

The importance of the impending Baker plan now stands in sharp relief. Because if we discard that path, my guess is that the Congress, Senate, and the President will opt for far more blood than we have seen thus far. I fear that in the not-to-distant future, we may well wax nostalgic for a month where "only" 105 American servicemen and women fell in Iraq.

Who "Lost" Iraq?

Heather Hurlburt, of Democracy Arsenal, takes on Ralph Peters:

Who "Lost" Iraq?

As much as I cheer every time another prominent cheerleader for the Iraq war leaves the ship, I kind of wish conservative military commentator Ralph Peters had stayed where he was.

Today he fires an impressive and dismaying salvo on the topic in USA TODAY. He describes the invasion as "noble," but incompetently done. But then comes this:

...for all our errors, we did give the Iraqis a unique chance to build a rule-of-law democracy. They preferred to indulge in old hatreds, confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption. It appears that the cynics were right: Arab societies can't support democracy as we know it. And people get the government they deserve.

For us, Iraq's impending failure is an embarrassment. For the Iraqis — and other Arabs — it's a disaster the dimensions of which they do not yet comprehend. They're gleeful at the prospect of America's humiliation. But it's their tragedy, not ours.

That's not "the soft bigotry of low expectations." That's just bigotry. Does what happened in the American South after the Civil War prove that the South "can't support democracy as we know it?" No. Latin America has a number of rather solid democracies today that looked quite dubious 20 years ago. Israel didn't spring from 1948 a fully-formed democracy, to choose a Middle Eastern example.

What did all those places have that Iraq hasn't had? Years -- decades, in fact -- of relative peace, strong external support and internal cohesion. (Obviously, Israel had less of the first and more of the last.) Institutions that developed internally and indigenously. Functioning economies and national institutions.

Ms. Hurlburt does like this one provocative line of Peters:
"And contrary to the prophets of doom, the United States wouldn't be weakened by our withdrawal, should it come to that. Iraq was never our Vietnam. It's al-Qaeda's Vietnam. They're the ones who can't leave and who can't win."
I can't make complete sense of this Peter's sentiment. Short term, I agree, we wouldn't be weakend immediately after a withdrawal -- our forces would be able to catch a much-needed breath. Longer term, well, I think that's a far tougher case to make. If the nascent civil war goes into full tilt boogie mode and other countries -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran -- are drawn into the conflict, then it seems that we won't be able to merely stand on the sidelines. The national security implications, our stalwart posture of defending Israel, economic/petroleum concerns, not to mention a devastating humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees seek to flee, will compel the United States to rejoin the Iraqi theater. For me, the penultimate question is whether those concerns are best dealt with now or later. And for me, the obvious answer is, painful as it will be, it is better to attempt to fix it now rather than let step aside with a likely deterioration of the situation. Of course, the ultimate question is how to deal with the situation now which minimizes further loss of life be it American or Iraqi.

I was struck by two of the comments at the USA TODAY site where the Peter's column appeared. The first one:

"It is absurd to blame the Iraqis for the mess made by those of you who supported this criminal enterprise of a war based on a 'pack of lies' and a corruption and incompetence that is stunning in its scale and depravity.

Iraq is worse than Vietnam. We had Vietnam in our rear view mirror so all of you should have known better. You let yourselves be swept up in the thrill of propaganda and now perhaps 650,000 or more Iraqis are dead because of it along with more than 2800 US forces...."

And the second one:

"What we are seeing here is two wars. One is the war between insurgents and our forces; it will stop if the insurgents are defeated or if we leave. The other is the war between Shia and Sunni, between this tribe and that tribe.

The second war is purely Iraqi, it is neither our fault nor our responsibility. It would have occurred regardless of whether Saddam had been removed by us, by a random act of nature, or by his own countrymen. Minus the despot, the bloodshed that followed was a certainty, as it was in Yugoslavia after the death of Tito a couple of decades ago. Ultimately the underlying cause of the Middle East's woes is population overshoot of the resource base in a region that is little more than barren desert. There is of course a lesson for us in that point as well..."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

CentCom Power Point: Sliding Towards Chaos

From the NYTimes:

WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 — A classified briefing prepared two weeks ago by the United States Central Command portrays Iraq as edging toward chaos, in a chart that the military is using as a barometer of civil conflict.

A one-page slide shown at the Oct. 18 briefing provides a rare glimpse into how the military command that oversees the war is trying to track its trajectory, particularly in terms of sectarian fighting.

The slide includes a color-coded bar chart that is used to illustrate an “Index of Civil Conflict.” It shows a sharp escalation in sectarian violence since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, and tracks a further worsening this month despite a concerted American push to tamp down the violence in Baghdad.

In fashioning the index, the military is weighing factors like the ineffectual Iraqi police and the dwindling influence of moderate religious and political figures, rather than more traditional military measures such as the enemy’s fighting strength and the control of territory.

The conclusions the Central Command has drawn from these trends are not encouraging, according to a copy of the slide that was obtained by The New York Times. The slide shows Iraq as moving sharply away from “peace,” an ideal on the far left side of the chart, to a point much closer to the right side of the spectrum, a red zone marked “chaos.” As depicted in the command’s chart, the needle has been moving steadily toward the far right of the chart.

An intelligence summary at the bottom of the slide reads “urban areas experiencing ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns to consolidate control” and “violence at all-time high, spreading geographically.” According to a Central Command official, the index on civil strife has been a staple of internal command briefings for most of this year. The analysis was prepared by the command’s intelligence directorate, which is overseen by Brig. Gen. John M. Custer.

So yesterday Prime Minister Maliki essentially orders the US forces out of Sadr City which in turn means that, at least temporarily, we have to stop looking for our missing soldier. Muqtada al-Sadr gets stronger and we get....well, certainly not stronger nor better positioned. The Shiite militias become stronger, more entrenched into what passes for a central government, forcing the Sunni insurgency to take more and more desperate steps. And our guys are caught in some truly nasty crossfire. And the plan is .......?

Maliki might just want to read up on what happened to this feller over here on the right -- I'm a thinkin' their fates will be shared.

Turn Your Swords into.....Espresso Machines

One of my favorite books is Donovan Webster's Aftermath which chronicles the after affects of war. The opening chapter discusses the work of the French demineurs -- men whose occupation is to scour the countryside of France searching for unexploded ordnance -- from World War One. They collect tons of the stuff and store it. Then, a couple times a year, they take the stuff to a beach, wait for the tide to go out, and then dig a hole with a backhoe. They ease the ordnance along with fresh explosives into the sand pit, sandwiching the shells that contain the dread mustard gas in the middle. They cover the hole, wait for the tide to come back in and then blow it all up. I guess the most mind boggling thing is that so much ordnance is around almost 90 years after it was dropped.

A fellow in Ethiopia, the birth place of coffee, has found a more ingenious use for the exploded mortar shells which litter the Ethiopian country side.

From the BBC with a hat tip to BoingBoing:

In his workshop in Mekele, just 120 km from Ethiopia's border with Eritrea, Azmeraw Zeleke is turning burnt-out shells into cylinders used in coffee machines.

Most of the shells are left over from the 1998-2000 war between the two countries.


He uses old mortar shells, which stand about one metre high, to make his coffee machines.

He cuts off the pointed ends, seals them and puts holes into the aluminium cylinder. The cylinder channels the water, coffee and milk.


Coffee is a major export from Ethiopia and plays a big role in life.

After meals, the traditional coffee ceremony allows family and friends to get together to share news and discuss the issues of the day.


Cafe owner Haile Abraha bought one of Mr Azmeraw's machines a few months ago.

"I had one other imported machine but this one is much better. It is relatively cheap. The price is fair. The machine is good and it makes good coffee."

But Mr Azmeraw says it can be difficult to convince people to buy because of the mortar shell.

"These shells have all been used. We all need peace and we don't want war but once these shells have been used, we should use our skills to do something with them.

"Sometimes I think about the fact they were used for war but I want to change them to do something good. They could be a symbol of war but I am doing something good out of the bad."

Since he started production five or six years ago, Mr Azmeraw has sold hundreds of machines - he cannot remember exactly how many.

Each one costs about $1,300. Most of them have been sold to people in the Mekele area.