State of the Union

Top 10 Lessons of the Iraq War

Stephen Walt catalogs what Americans ought to learn from the neoconservatives’ Mesopotamian wreck. Consider his first two points:

Lesson #1: The United States lost. The first and most important lesson of Iraq war is that we didn’t win in any meaningful sense of that term. The alleged purpose of the war was eliminating Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, but it turns out he didn’t have any. Oops. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran’s position in the Persian Gulf — which is hardly something the United States intended — and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan) and made the United States much less popular around the world…

Lesson #2: It’s not that hard to hijack the United States into a war. The United States is still a very powerful country, and the short-term costs of military action are relatively low in most cases. As a result, wars of choice (or even “wars of whim”) are possible. The Iraq war reminds us that if the executive branch is united around the idea of war, normal checks and balances — including media scrutiny — tend to break down. Read More…

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The Iraq We Leave Behind

The Arab League is holding a summit in Baghdad this week, yet it’s “nothing but cover for a state collapsing at full force” according to Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories and chairman from 2005-2007 of the donor committee of the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq. Bell sums up the situation:

46 people killed and many more wounded [last] week in apparently co-ordinated attacks in Baghdad, Karbala, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities on the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion. The prevailing mood on the street is one of fatigue, desperation and fear. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government cannot control the chaos; indeed, it may be contributing to it as the façade of democratization and pluralism crumbles, accelerated by the departure of the last U.S. troops last December.

There can be no clearer indictment of the neo-conservatives who dominated the U.S. political process during George W. Bush’s presidency. Their statement of faith, the Project for the New American Century, issued in 1997 and warmly embraced by Mr. Bush as a new and largely inexperienced president, called for the forceful imposition of American values on Third World countries suffering from autocracies. The Iraq intervention shows the flaws in this reasoning. The thousands of deaths and injuries suffered in this imperial enterprise is testament to willful ignorance. Millions of Iraqis have fled the country and the oldest Christian communities on Earth have been obliterated.

“Either Mr. Maliki will be successful in consolidating his one-man rule or Iraq will self-destruct, breaking into a series of quasi-independent entities based on religion, ethnicity and tribe,” Bell says.

Lessons should be learned from this carnage. Despite the moral umbrage one may feel, don’t involve yourself in the affairs of others unless knowledge, reflection and debate suggest an even chance of success. Gut feelings and theoretical constructs can be strongly felt, but most often lead to catastrophe. The law of unintended consequences should be kept in mind regarding Afghanistan, any intervention in Syria and the thought of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Unfortunately the prospects for America’s foreign-policy elite heeding Bell’s advice seem about as dim as the prospects for freedom in Baghdad.

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Douse the Flames, Mr. President!

Barack Obama’s statement that the death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy that cries out for a more thorough investigation was the right and necessary thing to say.

But it fell far short of what was needed: a presidential call for a halt to the rhetoric that is stirring up racial rage and inflaming the nation. The incendiary language being deployed is both divisive and dangerous.

Addressing the Sanford, Fla., incident, Black Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan tweeted: “Where there is no justice, there will be no peace. Soon, and very soon, the law of retaliation may … be applied.”

The New Black Panther Party has issued a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster featuring the face of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, and printed up a flier saying Martin was “murdered in cold blood.”

When Panther leader Mikhail Muhammad was asked if this could ignite an explosive situation that has already seen death threats drive Zimmerman and his father from their homes, Muhammad cursed and said Zimmerman “should be fearful for his life.” Read More…

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Disseminating American Ideals

Americans are once again surprised to learn that the rest of humanity doesn’t always share their hopes and dreams — or even their basic set of values. Hence, in the aftermath of the massacre in Afghanistan of 16 people in the hands of an American soldier, some pundits have been trying to resolve what they consider to be a paradox of sorts.

While the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. government employees in Afghanistan last month triggered violent protests outside NATO that took at least 29 lives, the intentional mass murder of Afghan civilians, including nine children in Kandahar on March 11, have led to a few mostly peaceful anti-American demonstrations.

That most Afghans seemed to have supported the February 2006 decision by a judge to execute an Afghan aid worker for converting to Christianity or that many Pakistanis refused to condemn the assassination of leading politician Salman Taseer by his own security guard who disagreed with Mr Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, are two other examples of incidents that have dramatised the wide gap between what we tend to regard as the American secular tradition and the continuing powerful role that religion tends to play in the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis and other people who, on paper at least, are considered to be America’s allies in the war against terrorism. Read More…

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What Would Churchill Say?

The British government has announced plans to impose a minimum price for alcohol at 40 pence a unit. This proposal is not only an affront to personal liberty and responsibility, and perhaps more importantly to one of the Briton’s favorite recreational activities, but betrays a small hypocrisy in the government’s economic thinking.

The thinking behind the imposed minimum pricing is that it will discourage “binge drinking,” a particularly unpleasant (but traditional) part of the average British weekend. In many British towns pubs and bars offer deals aimed at young adults that sometimes allow for someone to consume close to half a handle of liquor for the price of a movie ticket.

As Chris Snowdon from the Adam Smith Institute points out, the actual definition of “binge drinking” is questionable at best, and the levels at which the British drink has been decreasing over the last hundred years.

Even if it were true that a measure such as this would discourage “binge drinking” (which is far from obvious), it is curious that the British government does not have a similar attitude towards this economic mechanism when it comes to labor.

If the theory is that setting an artificial minimum price (free from market mechanisms) for alcohol will discourage consumption, then why is the same thinking not applied to the minimum wage? The minimum wage is effectively a minimum pricing on labor. In the UK it is illegal for anyone to offer their services for £5.92 (about $9.40) an hour. This especially hurts the youth in the UK, who are among the worst affected by unemployment, with 22% of 16-24 year olds out of work, many of them without any skills. Because of the minimum wage, it is very difficult for many of them to gain the skills they need to establish a career.

This move by the British government is also insane not only because of the nannying and patronizing attitude those in power seem to have towards the public, but because it will affect an already struggling industry in a negative way. Pubs all across the UK are closing, and this new measure will not help.

If the British economy is to improve, the British government should remove the minimum pricing they have proposed for alcohol and abolish the minimum pricing they have in place for labor. It is a shame that one of the most reliable refuges during hard economic times will now be priced artificially high, and a comforting pint of bitter will now take more out of the pocket that it did already.

I love my home country, not least because of its relationship to alcohol. The Scribe, wrote on the joys of alcohol in Macbeth, in which the following exchange takes place:

Macduff: What three things does drink especially provoke?

Porter: Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine.

Why any government thinks they should or could discourage such an age-old activity is quite beyond me.

Image: Shutterstock/Nomad_Soul

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Why Can’t We Have a Tacocopter?

“Honestly I think it’s not totally unreasonable to regulate something as potentially dangerous as having flying robots slinging tacos over people’s heads … [O]n the other hand, it’s a little bit ironic that that’s the case in a country where you can be killed by drone with no judicial review.” — Star Simpson, alumnus of MIT’s Personal Robotics Group and co-founder of a business that would deliver tacos by helicopter drone, pending FAA approval.

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Arlen Specter’s Filthy New Memoir

You might have thought the former Pennsylvania senator had finished with what harm he could wreak on the republic. But you’d be wrong, oh so wrong. The Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel wades into the pages of his depraved new memoir, Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It, and witnesses sights that shouldn’t be seen in the rankest bolgia of the Inferno: “knee to knee” with Sarah Palin; John Thune “looked like a movie star in or out of clothes”; “Ted Kennedy came over and climbed into the bath. Kennedy was one of the Senate’s giants, in many ways. … I’d never seen two men in the whirlpool before…” Politics, carnality, and grand guignol haven’t collided like this since the last time Tinto Brass, Gore Vidal, and Bob Guccione collaborated.

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The Paul Ryan Budget: Dissents Right and Center

Though Bruce Barteltt and Rep. Justin Amash are heading along different trajectories in their views about the size of government and taxes, they converge on a key criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget — the numbers just don’t crunch. As Bartlett writes at the Fiscal Times, “Any tax reform plan that simply asserts it will collect a certain percentage of GDP in revenues while specifying the rate structure but not defining the tax base is fundamentally dishonest, in my opinion. The CBO was simply ordered to assume that Ryan’s numbers are legitimate.” Given the budget’s vague assumptions and unrealistic ambitions for and cutting spending and recouping revenue from tax-code restructuring, Bartlett concludes, “the Ryan budget should be seen as nothing more than a PR document for Republicans so they can say they have a plan to balance the budget, cut taxes, and cure the common cold.”

Amash, writing on his Facebook page, is more generous to his colleague — “I have a lot of respect for Chairman Paul Ryan and his outstanding staff” — but is also troubled by assumptions behind the plan, as well as its failure to address military spending and live up to the requirements of the Budget Control Act:

Today’s committee vote was one of the most difficult of my life. Ultimately, I voted “no” for a few basic reasons: (1) The time to balance is too long. According to CBO, the budget won’t reach balance until nearly 2040. Under an alternative growth scenario, it still might be unbalanced until the mid-2020s. (2) The budget exempts military spending from reductions, which makes it more difficult to achieve bipartisan support to reform the primary components of our annual deficit: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. (3) The FY 2013 cuts do not appear to match the magnitude of the cuts required under the post-sequester Budget Control Act, which most Republicans and Democrats agreed to in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. I did not support the BCA (raising the debt ceiling) because I believed the parties were making a political compromise—promising future cuts that would not happen—rather than a genuine compromise to deal with the debt immediately.

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie, appearing on Fox News, is also unimpressed: Read More…

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Paintball With Hezbollah

Mitchell Prothero, a Western journalist residing in Lebanon, leads a team of fellow reporters (and counterinsurgency guru Andrew Exum) in a friendly game of paintball with five guys from Hezbollah, and writes it up for Vice:

Our collective reasoning for the game was simple: bragging rights. Hezbollah’s military wing is widely considered the most competent group of “nonstate actors”—or, depending where you sit, “terrorists”—in the world. I’d seen pretty much all of their closest competition in action: Al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, and almost any other militant group you can name in the region. Famed for their combat prowess and careful tactical calibration, Hezbollah’s few thousand professional fighters have repeatedly taken on the toughest armies in the world (Israel, France, the United States, and even, briefly, Syria) and come out on top every time. Over the decades, they’ve grown in skill and competence to the point where, during the 2006 war with Israel, they’d done something few insurgencies have ever accomplished: morph from guerrillas into a semi-conventional force. If I could get them into a paintball game, I could witness their battlefield tactics firsthand. And if our team could beat them, we could walk around calling ourselves “the most dangerous nonstate actors on the planet.”

The piece isn’t exactly packed with new insights into “the Party of God,” but it’s riveting reading. And there is this lesson from “The Boss,” ranking member of the Hezbollah squad, about how insurgencies win: Read More…

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Toulouse: The Dark Side of Diversity

As an act of pure evil it was difficult to match.

After dragging the 8-year-old by her hair across a schoolyard, the killer put a 9 mm pistol to the girl’s head and pulled the trigger.

The gun jammed. So he took out a Colt .45 and finished her.

She was one of four victims. The others — a 30-year-old rabbi and his two boys.

As the gunman had targeted a Jewish school and the bullets were identical to those used in the murders of two North African soldiers and one black soldier, suspicion fell on some neo-Nazi racist.

And in France’s tight presidential campaign, left and center moved swiftly to exploit the atrocities by charging the French right with creating an atmosphere in which such racist horrors can occur.

Killings Could Stall Election’s Nationalist Turn,” ran the New York Times headline. The debate over whether the murders were “inspired by anti-immigrant political talk is likely to continue,” wrote the Times’ Steve Erlanger, “both as a weapon in the presidential campaign and as a more general soul-searching about the nature of France.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was thrown on the defensive. Read More…

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