A Normal Country in a Normal Time Ever Again?

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The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989–1991 closed an important chapter not only in Russian history, but in our own as well.

For 50 years after Pearl Harbor, the United States, a nation enjoined to isolation by its founders, had labored to save Western civilization, and indeed the world, from Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. It had won through against both enemies, though at considerable cost to itself.

The war of 1941–1945 against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan cost the lives of 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. We must, of course, never forget the sacrifice those men made for victory. Lost lives aside, however, the war actually benefited America tremendously. We emerged from it as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb. Our economy in 1945 accounted for almost 50% of the world’s total output; we possessed a wealth of modern plant and equipment, and we were far ahead of the rest of the world in most if not all cutting-edge technologies. Our infrastructure was the most modern and efficient in the world, and there was more (such as the national highway system) to come. Our debt was high, but we owed most of it to ourselves, and were quite capable of paying it off. The terrible days of the Great Depression were over, seemingly for good; the soup kitchens and shantytowns of the 1930s were gone, while an expanding middle class that for the first time included blue-collar workers was enjoying a prosperity greater than any other nation had known.

If culturally the America of 1945 was in no way comparable to Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome, there was nevertheless a certain vitality evident in American arts and letters. Modernism was in its heyday, and its capital was no longer Paris but New York. The undifferentiated mass barbarism of the postmodernist present was, in the period 1945–1965, almost inconceivable.

We emerged from World War II as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb.

The costs of the Cold War against Soviet Communism were both more subtle and more profound than those incurred in World War II, although it was not until the 1960s that these costs began to be felt. Dallas and its legacies — the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and his war in Vietnam — initiated a period of decline in American power, prestige, and prosperity. The fall of Saigon in 1975 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (the latter, as it turned out, the last in a series of Communist takeovers in what was then known as the Third World) seemed to mark a turn in the historical tide. Not that communism, as a doctrine and system of government, could stand comparison to Western values; it most assuredly could not. But the West, and particularly the United States, appeared to be in terminal decline. By the late 1970s a failure of will, of morale, was palpably in the air. Vietnam looked increasingly like an American version of the expedition to Syracuse — that unnecessary and, ultimately, disastrous campaign undertaken by ancient Athens, and memorably recorded in the pages of Thucydides.

Yet Athens, despite its defeat at Syracuse, and despite waging war simultaneously against Sparta and the vast Persian Empire, rallied and regained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War. It was only later that war à outrance and treason within brought about Athens’ final defeat and the end of its primacy in the ancient world.

America in the 1980s rallied in a similar fashion, emerging from the nadir of defeat in Vietnam to challenge Soviet imperialism once more, and then, by a policy of peace through strength, giving the sclerotic Soviet system a final push that sent it to its well-deserved place on the trash heap of history. With this the 50-year struggle against totalitarianism was over, and freedom had triumphed. Or had it? At just this moment, in 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick, formerly Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador and a prominent neoconservative, published an article in the National Interest. It was titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” and it put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e., world domination.

Kirkpatrick, a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment, began her essay by stating that a good society is not defined by its foreign policy but rather by the “existence of democracy, opportunity, fairness; by the relations among its citizens, the kind of character nurtured, and the quality of life lived.”

Kirkpatrick put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve world domination.

She went on to write that “Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society only [emphasis added] if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive, or when it is threatened by aggression.” The end of the Cold War, she averred, “frees time, attention, and resources for American needs.”

Kirkpatrick’s vision was right for America in 1990, and it remains so now. But that vision, alas, has never been fulfilled.

In her essay Kirkpatrick warned that foreign policy elites — the denizens of government bureaucracies, universities, and thinktanks — had become altogether too influential and powerful during the 50 years’ emergency, and that their interests were by no means aligned with those of the citizenry as a whole. She made two other very important points: that restraint on the international stage is not the same thing as isolationism, and that popular control of foreign policy is vitally necessary to prevent elite, minority opinion from determining the perceived national interest. With respect to the latter point Kirkpatrick neither said nor implied that the American people should make policy directly. She acknowledged — correctly — that professional diplomats and other experts are required for the proper execution of national policy. But policy in the broad sense must reflect the views of the people and must be circumscribed by the amount of blood and treasure the people are willing to sacrifice for any particular foreign policy objective.

Her concept of a polity in which the citizenry sets or at least endorses the goals of foreign policy admittedly has its troubling aspects. For one thing, it is far from certain that the citizenry as a whole — the masses, to be blunt — will choose to adopt wise policies. In Athens the expedition against Syracuse was enthusiastically endorsed by the Assembly, and history is replete with further examples of the popular will leading to disaster. Flowing from this is a second problem: the ability of clever demagogues or cabals to sway or bypass popular opinion in favor of policies that are inimical to the general interest, and that often turn out to be disastrous. Post-World War II American history provides numerous examples of this: the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of a democratic government in Iran at the behest of British and American oil interests, with consequences that we are still trying to deal with today; the Bay of Pigs (1961), which set in motion a chain of events that nearly led to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, both of which received initial popular support as a result of outright deception perpetrated by a few powerful men with an agenda. (The phony Tonkin Gulf incident opened the way to escalation in Vietnam, while the falsehoods about WMD, anthrax, and Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 made possible George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.)

Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

Nevertheless, the alternative to popular control over foreign policy is the placing of the nation’s destiny in the hands of an elite that, by its very nature, typically has little understanding of the needs and desires of the people as a whole. Such elites are, unfortunately, quite prone to committing disastrous errors of judgment — witness the events mentioned above. Plato’s guardians are rarely found in the flesh. Gibbon pointed to the Five Good Emperors who reigned over Rome in the period 96–180 CE, which the historian characterized as the happiest and most prosperous time in human history. But these men were almost the exceptions that prove the rule. British policy in the 19th century was guided by statesmen such as Palmerston and Salisbury — men who understood both Britain’s interests and the limits of its power. For a brief period of ten years, between the fall of France in 1940 and the decision to march to the Yalu in Korea in 1950, American foreign policy received, in general, wise elite guidance. These were critical years, and we should be thankful that men such as George Marshall and Dean Acheson were in power at that time. But except for that brief span, elite leadership of American foreign policy has entailed economic and blood costs far in excess of those we actually needed to pay. Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

The Deep State, quite real though unacknowledged by most academic historians and the mainstream media, amounts to a partnership between nonstate actors and various groups inside government, working together to shape and carry out policies that are generally contrary to the popular will, and often to the national interest as well. The Deep State is not a second, shadow government or conspiracy central, with permanent members who manipulate puppets in the White House and the halls of Congress. Rather, it consists of shifting or ad hoc alliances between government insiders and groups of powerful people or institutions outside of government. The former are sometimes elected officials, sometimes holders of key posts in the bureaucracy or the military. Such alliances are typically formed in the name of “national security” but often benefit only the ideological, institutional, or pecuniary interests of Deep State actors.

Some of the nonstate actors are “respectable” (the big New York banks, the oil majors, defense contractors), while others are by no means so (the Mafia, international drug traffickers). But whether they can be mentioned in polite company or not, their influence has often been felt in the councils of government, and particularly with respect to American foreign policy. For example, the swift transformation of the CIA, originally conceived as an intelligence-gathering agency, into a covert operations juggernaut was the work of men drawn mainly from Wall Street law firms and investment banks. These men went on to cooperate with the Mafia in places such as Cuba, extending an overworld-underworld partnership that went back to World War II.

Malign influences of this sort had been present since at least the end of the Civil War, but in earlier times had been limited to buying votes in Congress or persuading the executive to dispatch the Marines to establish order and collect debts in Latin American banana republics. The great expansion of government in World War II, and especially during the Cold War, allowed the Deep State to metastasize. The collapse of the European colonial empires and the simultaneous ascension of America to superpower status meant that after 1945 the American Deep State could extend its tentacles globally.

The turning point was probably the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. These institutions, and particularly the first two, were (and to an extent still are) beyond the effective control of either the Congress or the president of the moment. And they are not alone. The various intelligence services and the military, or parts thereof, often pursue agendas that are at variance with official policy as set out by the president. They sometimes partner with each other, or with powerful institutions and people outside of government, to achieve mutually desired objectives. President Eisenhower, with his immense personal popularity and prestige, was able to hold the line to the extent of keeping us out of another shooting war, though he nevertheless felt compelled to warn the people, in his farewell address, of the growing power and influence of the Deep State, which he termed the Military-Industrial Complex.

The “deep events” of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra — cannot be understood without reference to the Deep State. The role of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in Iran-Contra is a good example of the Deep State in action. I mention BCCI specifically because its peculiar history has been revealed in several well-researched books and in investigations by the Congress. But the role of BCCI in Iran-Contra (and much else besides) is just one of the many strange manifestations of the Deep State in our history. The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

The loss of liberty that resulted from the emergence and growth of the Deep State was real and perhaps irreversible. By the 1960s, the machinery of domestic surveillance, created in embryo by J. Edgar Hoover even before World War II, included spying on the populace by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the military. Domestic spying was reined in somewhat during the 1970s, only to be ramped up again under Reagan in the 1980s. These abuses were part of the price paid for victory in the Cold War. Whether such abuses were inevitable under Cold War conditions is debatable; I personally would characterize them as the effluvia typical of a bloated imperium.

The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

Be that as it may, the Cold War did end in a real victory, and with victory came the hope that the worrisome trends (“worrisome” is doubtless too mild a word) that the struggle against totalitarianism had initiated or exacerbated could be reversed.

It was therefore highly encouraging when in 1990 Kirkpatrick published her article calling on America to become once again a normal country. That the call was sounded by a leading representative of the neoconservative movement, rather than someone from the Left, was quite promising. If a hardliner such as Kirkpatrick could see the light, perhaps other important leaders of the American polity would, too.

In the 1990s there were some indications that we were heading in the right direction. Under Bush the First and Clinton, defense spending decreased by about 30% from Cold War highs. Internally, signs of health began to emerge — for example, the decline in crime to early 1960s levels, and the return to a balanced federal budget (the latter, admittedly, achieved with some accounting legerdemain). A slow but steady healing process appeared to be underway.

In retrospect, one can see that these were mere surface phenomena. America’s role in the world did not undergo a fundamental reappraisal, as Kirkpatrick’s thesis demanded. The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap. Meddling elsewhere — in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo — reinforced this view, even though Somalia turned out badly (and of course Bosnia eventually became a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism, which is the state of affairs there today). In the 1990s pundits and average citizens alike began to speak openly of an American empire, while of course stressing its liberal and benign aspects. “We run the world” was the view espoused across a broad spectrum of public opinion, with dissent from this view confined to a few libertarians and traditional conservatives on the right, and some principled thinkers on the left.

At the same time, Deep State actors were attempting, both openly and covertly, to prevent any return to normalcy (if I may use that term), while promoting their agenda of American supremacy. Certain academics and intellectuals, lobbyists, defense contractors, and government officials with their eyes on the revolving door were all working assiduously to convince the Congress and the people that a return to something like a normal country in a normal time was a dangerous proposition. In fact, of course, there was no longer any need for America to maintain a huge military establishment and a worldwide network of bases — for there was no longer any existential threat. Russia was at that time virtually prostrate (nor did it ever have to become an enemy again), China as a danger was at least 25 years away, and Islamic terrorism was in its infancy — and could moreover have been sidestepped if the US had simply withdrawn from the Middle East, or at least evacuated Saudi Arabia and ended its one-sided support for Israel. But in the end these facts were either ignored or obscured by influential people with foreign policy axes to grind, assisted by others who had a financial stake in the maintenance of a global American empire.

The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap.

One group, The Project for the New American Century, stands out for its persistence and drive in seeking to advance a particularist agenda. It is no exaggeration to say that the members of this group — which included not only such faux intellectuals as Bill Kristol, but men with real power inside and outside of government, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — prepared the way for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. The blueprints for both the war and the Act were prepared by these men even before 9/11. September 11, 2001 was of course a turning point, just as 1947 had been. The neocons, the Deep State, had won. When the towers came down it meant that “full-spectrum dominance” had triumphed over “a normal country in a normal time.”

The Project for the New American Century closed its doors in 2006, but the neocons live on, and persist in calling for more defense spending, more interventionism, and more government restrictions on civil liberties. And they are joined by other voices. The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite. They, like the neocons, see Obama as far too passive a commander-in-chief, even as he wages war by proxy and drone in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and continues the state of national emergency first declared by George W. Bush on September 14, 2001. The state of emergency gives extraordinary wartime powers to the executive, even in the absence of a declared war. Some of the powers that the commander-in-chief possesses under the declaration are actually secret. Obama, who has the authority to end the state of emergency, has instead renewed it annually since taking office. The Congress, which is required by law to meet every six months to determine whether the state of emergency should be continued, has never considered the matter in formal session. (The Roman Republic, in case of a dire emergency, appointed a dictator whose power automatically expired after six months’ time. Only under the empire was a permanent autocracy instituted.)

At the same time, the systematic domestic surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act, far more extensive than anything J. Edgar Hoover or James Jesus Angleton (CIA Chief of Counterintelligence, 1954–1975) ever dreamed of, has been left virtually intact by the Obama administration and the Congress.

Obama’s successor, whether Republican or Democrat, is almost certain to be more interventionist abroad, and equally or more unfriendly to civil liberties at home (Trump seems mainly concerned with getting our allies to pay more for the protection we give them, as opposed to cutting back on our worldwide commitments, while his apparent views on civil liberties are not encouraging). America, it appears, is incapable of dialing back on imperial overstretch. Yet what vital American interest is served by meddling in places like Yemen or Ukraine? What ideals are fulfilled by supporting the suppression of democracy in, for example, Bahrain? It seems clear that American elites, both inside and outside government, simply cannot bring themselves to let the world be, cannot abandon the concept of a global order organized and run by the United States.

With distance comes perspective. As time passes it becomes ever clearer that George W. Bush’s war in Iraq represented a second American Syracuse, a defeat with catastrophic consequences. It is quite true that, as in Vietnam, our forces were not beaten in the field. But the greater truth is that the political objectives in Iraq, as in Vietnam, were not achievable, and that this could and should have been recognized from the start. Today most of Iraq is divided between a corrupt and incompetent Shia-led government under the influence of Iran, and an ISIS-dominated territory in which obscurantism and bloodthirsty brutality hold sway. Such are the fruits of the successful march on Baghdad in 2003. Trillions of American dollars — every penny of it borrowed — were thrown down the Iraqi rathole, as the Bush administration abandoned the principle of balanced budgets and the prospect of paying off the national debt, something that appeared eminently possible at the beginning of its term in office. The dead and the maimed, Americans and Iraqis, suffered to no purpose.

The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite.

Americans are a resilient people. America’s institutions, despite obvious flaws, are superior to those of its enemies and rivals. America recovered from the Syracuse of Vietnam and not only salved the wounds of that war but went on to defeat its main competitor in the arena of world politics. But can America recover from a second Syracuse?

Compare the state of the nation today with that of 1945, or even 1965. Admittedly, not everything has gone to rot. The advances achieved by women and minorities — racial and sexual — have given us a better, freer society, at least on the social plane, compared to 50 years ago. Advances in technology have in some respects brightened our lives. But the heavy hand of government and the machinations of the Deep State have brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, enmeshed us in foreign lands where we ought never to have trespassed, and put limits on basic freedoms of speech and privacy. Broad-based prosperity and the economic optimism of the past are gone, perhaps forever, because of adventurism abroad and elite mismanagement of the economy at home.

The current ruptures in the governing duopoly, Republican-Democrat, are clear evidence of dysfunction at the highest level, and of the citizens’ discontent. Yet the election of 2016 will be fought out between a bloviating, ignorant real estate tycoon and a tired, corrupt ex-First Lady. The former knows little of the Washington machine or the intricacies of the Deep State; I predict that, if elected, he will be reduced to a virtual puppet, and the fact will never dawn on him. Hillary, on the other hand, is very comfortable with the status quo, no matter what she may say to placate the supporters of her rival Bernie Sanders. Neither Trump nor Clinton — or anyone else with power, either — appears to have a clue about the real nature of the crisis we are in, much less how to bring us out of it.

A normal country in a normal time? Never again, I think. The future appears quite dark to me.

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Author’s Note: Some readers of Liberty may be unfamiliar with the concept of the Deep State, or may reject it as mere conspiracy-mongering. In fact, the Deep State (or parts thereof) has been discussed in several well-researched books. A newcomer to the idea might begin by reading Philip Giraldi’s article, “Deep State America,”which appeared on the website of the American Conservative on July 30, 2015. Read it. I take issue with Giraldi in one respect: his total focus on the New York-Washington axis of power. The Sun Belt also plays a huge role in the Deep State. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1990 article, by the way, cannot be read free online, but is available through JSTOR.




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Brian Williams: The Political Effect

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Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I have known for a long time, and whom I would describe as an idolator of Hillary Clinton. My friend is an intelligent person, but Hillary is her blind spot. Every national election cycle has seen her proudly hailing Hillary’s political progress or bitterly regretting her failure with the electorate. Any attempt to suggest grounds for skepticism has been greeted with a swiftly rising cloud of anger.

Yesterday was different. When she pointedly brought up Brian Williams, I thought I would soon hear her favorite refrain about “people who lie — just like George Bush.” This time, however, the “just like” was Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s amazing lie about being shot at in Bosnia was recounted in detail, and with something approaching glee. My efforts to divert the discussion from such an unpleasant subject were unavailing. My friend now despises Clinton.

When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying.

I suspect there are a lot of other people like her. I also know there are a lot of other problems with Hillary, besides the one that got to my friend. Hillary’s lies about not being rich. Her being rich, with money accrued during the political process. Her total lack of accomplishments. Her bizarre and ridiculous husband, and the bizarre and ridiculous things she has said about him. Her slick, repellent friends. Her friendship with crony capitalists. Her “what difference does it make?” speech about Benghazi. Her “business doesn’t create jobs” speech. Her “vast rightwing conspiracy” speech. Her apparent inability to give a speech that anybody actually likes. Her own complete lack of likability.

I was surprised to hear someone as savvy as Doug Schoen (speaking on Fox News on February 9), alleging that none of this matters to Hillary’s prospects. He pointed to the disarrangement of the Republicans, which supposedly makes people like Hillary more. I have another theory. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’m trying it out. When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying. Similarly, when people hate Clinton for being a nepotist, the little bell goes off again, and they hate Jeb Bush for the same reason. And when people hate President Obama for his babbling obfuscations, they remember the babbling obfuscations of most of the leading Republicans.

These reactions, which are normal and natural for normal people, may clear a lot of bad candidates out of the field. Hell, it worked with Romney.




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Brilliant and Troubling

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Unless you’ve had your head under a rock for the past month, you have heard the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Known as the deadliest sniper in American history, he served four tours of duty in Iraq, during which time he was credited with killing over 160 people (some say the actual number is twice that), was shot three times, endured multiple surgeries, and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and numerous other honors. After retiring from active duty, Kyle spent the rest of his short life working with disabled veterans to help them overcome their physical and psychological injuries.

American Sniper tells the Chris Kyle story. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has entered superhero territory at the box office, raking in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend, more than the total combined earnings of the other nominees for Best Picture and likely enough to break director Clint Eastwood’s personal box office records. And with good reason: American Sniper is tight, intense, and emotionally disturbing, the way a war movie ought to be. It takes us into the fray with the soldiers, while also keeping us at home with the families who fear for their lives. In one memorable scene, Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in anguish to the battle exploding around her husband when his squad is caught in a street fight and he drops his phone without disconnecting it. In that same scene, an Iraqi family friendly to the Americans is caught in a terrifying standoff with a man known as “The Butcher.” The juxtaposition of two families on opposite sides of the globe vying for one man’s protection is emotionally overwhelming. I cried.

When Bradley Cooper bought the movie rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir, he intended to serve as producer with Chris Pratt in the title role. Pratt is the right build and look, and could have been a good choice. But Cooper is brilliant. I have often commented in these reviews on the intensity and clarity of Cooper’s eyes. He can communicate the thoughts, emotions, and complexity of a character without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Those eyes serve him superbly well in this role, in which, as a sniper, he often waits motionless, searching the distance, ready to squeeze the trigger. Through his eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat. Through those eyes we see a man who, like so many soldiers, returns home safe, but not sound.

When Iraqis see this film, will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Several cinematic nuances contribute to the brilliance of the film. At one point, the camera focuses in through the lens of Kyle’s rifle’s sights, magnifying his deadly eye. I was reminded of a scene from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” when Farquhar, a condemned Confederate saboteur, looks up from the river toward the Union soldier who is trying to shoot him: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” An impossible feat, of course — just as impossible as Kyle’s ability to see a sniper 2,000 yards away. And yet, he does. In another scene, we see an homage to Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express as a dust storm swirls relentlessly around the soldiers. These subtle allusions magnify the emotion and intensity of the storytelling.

So what about the controversy swirling around this film? Much of it stems from the fact that Chris Kyle’s kills did not occur randomly in the heat of battle, but with deadly calm and careful aim taken from neighborhood rooftops. Somehow it is considered honorable and acceptable to kill hundreds of enemies on the battlefield with bombs and machine guns, but pick them off one by one — and admit that you love doing it — and you become a sadistic, calculating murderer.

Kyle is portrayed as a red-white-and-blue patriot who fights, as he often says, to protect Americans. But the film is far from jingoistic. It presents a balanced picture of the aftermath of war — honorable soldiers with doubts about America’s mission, other soldiers mangled and maimed from injuries, still others suffering from PTSD; children growing up without their fathers, and wives suffering from loneliness, fear, and anxiety. It even presents the fearful experience of the enemy, with scenes of Americans bursting into homes while screaming vulgarities and waving rifles in the faces of terrified women and children — hardly an image of patriotism or moral rectitude in the free world.

Watching these events, even from the perspective of a highly decorated Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Iraqis. Who do we think we are, rolling through their towns with tanks and jeeps, smashing up their roads, blowing up their buildings, and bursting into their homes with guns drawn and trigger-fingers itchy? And when Iraqis (and other Middle Easterners) see this film, how will they feel? Will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Through Cooper's eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat.

Traditionally, wars have been fought on battlefields, away from home and civilians. Soldiers die and resources are used up until, finally, one side surrenders, and the conflict ends. By contrast, this is a war fought not only on the home front, but also in it. Middle East soldiers live at home with their families, and they attack in packs. Kyle observed the worst of those “pack attacks” on September 11, 2001, when 19 warriors turned four passenger jets into weapons, killing 3,000 civilians (and some military personnel) as they were starting their work day. This, he says, was his motivation for enduring the grueling training required to become a SEAL and go to war. America had been attacked. But it’s hard to justify a war that goes on and on, where soldiers continue to die and resources continue to be used up, but no one seems ready to surrender.

Historically there have been four excuses for going to war: 1) to expand one’s borders; 2) to plunder resources; 3) to change a culture and belief system perceived as immoral; and 4) to defend oneself from aggressors. Only the final two are remotely justifiable, but in this war, none of these reasons is being observed. We aren’t enriching ourselves; we aren’t changing anything; and we wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if we weren’t there. And there are only two smart ways to deal with a hornet’s nest: either smash it entirely, or leave it alone. Unless we are willing to do the former, we ought to do the latter. The most dangerous approach is to poke at it but leave it intact.

American Sniper is stirring the conversation, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a brilliantly made film, better in many ways than Saving Private Ryan, and deserves the accolades it is receiving. No matter how you feel about war, this is a film worth seeing and discussing.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 137 minutes.



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Moving Forward, Clichés Remain

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On August 8, Fox News reported on the Obamacare-avoidance strategy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Since Shaheen is running for reelection, she never mentions the great legislative achievement of the supreme leader of her party; Obamacare is just too unpopular to be named. Accordingly, in an interview played by Fox, Shaheen answered questions about the program by noting that she didn’t write the Obamacare law. She didn’t say whether this was because she opposed its provisions (although she voted for them) or because she can’t write. She did observe that “hindsight is always 20/20.”

She said this with great satisfaction, as if she were proud of her creative use of words.

Odd. But come to think of it, everyone who uses this cliché projects the same morbid pride. A similar cock-eyed vanity accompanies the use of “wake-up call,” “deck chairs on the Titanic,” “it’s a case of he said, she said,” “last time I checked,” “abundance of caution,” “shocks the conscience,” “got your back,” and, of course, “tone-deaf.” I don’t know why people who obviously care so deeply about the words they choose can’t see that their prize expressions have been in everyone’s mouth (ugly thought, isn’t it?) for many, many years. Maybe that’s a lack of hindsight.

It’s funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge.

But what about foresight? On the same day on which Fox was ventilating Sen. Shaheen’s inanities, the network’s B-list anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle said this about Iraq: “Questions remain about President Obama’s strategy, moving forward.” She said this as if it meant something. Well, I have some questions too, as I move forward in my own life. Don’t questions always remain, about anything? Then why bother to say so? If, however, she meant “doubt” or “skepticism,” why didn’t she say that? And isn’t strategy always about what you’re going to do in the future? If so, what is moving forward doing in that sentence? And what’s the grammar of the sentence, anyway? What is it that’s “moving”? Is it “strategy”? Is the president’s strategy moving? Or is it “questions” that are executing a peculiar forward motion? Yet the questions are supposed to remain. Tell me, Ms. Guilfoyle. But maybe someone else can tell me why moving forward has become such a popular cliché? Is it, like many other redundant expressions, just a way for insecure speakers to nail down their meaning — in this instance, to nail down the idea that, yes, I am talking about the future, OK, not the past? Y’know?

There are clichés, and then there are mistakes — continually repeated mistakes. The mistake of writing whacko when you mean wacko. The mistake of calling in the calvary. The mistake of using disinterested to mean uninterested. And, as I’ve told you before, there is the rising tide of squash.

I mean the confusion of that word, which normally evokes absurd images of fat things being flattened, with quash, which is naturally attached to no particular image but does mean something specific: to stop or repress. The judge quashed the indictment. The teacher quashed the question. The dictator quashed all debate. Try to picture indictments, questions, and debates being squashed. You can’t, and the harder you try, the sillier the incipient images become.

I would expect conservatives to conserve the quash-squash distinction. But they have become almost as good at moving forward as the progressives. In the conservative Daily Caller, July 21, we find this headline: “Top Kerry Aide Tries to Squash Claim of Anti-Fox News Bias by Lying to the Daily Caller.” The story is interesting, but the headline is bad by any standard except that of “Dog Bites Man.” One is supposed to picture a “Kerry aide” — an aide of the secretary of state, John Kerry — rushing over to a claim of bias, stomping on it, jumping on it, sitting on it, and finally lying about it, in a futile attempt to squash the thing. Yet the Daily Caller did not intend to be satirical. Or self-satirical.

Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase.

Neither did Attorney General Holder, in solemn remarks (he is always solemn) that announced his insertion of the federal government into the matter of a young man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Evidently this is the kind of thing that can be handled only by the intrepid intellect of the attorney general, and of the 40 FBI agents he dispatched to a little Midwestern town. But here is the LA Times report (August 11) on the terms in which Holder announced his intervention:

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that he believed the shooting in Ferguson “deserves fulsome review,” and he wanted the federal inquiry to “supplement, not supplant” the investigation by police in Missouri.

“Supplement, not supplant”: nothing wrong with that verbiage. “Review” is a little funky — funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge. Citizens were meant to understand that what Holder had in mind wasn’t an investigation, a legal proceeding, a crackdown, an inquisition, a Court of Star Chamber. No, it was merely a review, albeit a “fulsome” one. We’re used to this kind of guff. But where did fulsome come from? The only possible source is the attorney general’s feeling that a full review would be lacking somehow in fullness. Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase. So, as pompous people extend use into utilize, road into roadway, and famous into infamous, Holder put a new deck on the back of the house, and full was transformed into fulsome.

The problem is that fulsome does not mean full (any more than infamous means famous). Fulsome sometimes means “large” (as opposed to “full”), but its ordinary meaning is less predictable by people who want to use big words they don’t understand. One dictionary lists the synonyms of fulsome as “excessive, extravagant, overdone, immoderate, inordinate, unctuous, cloying . . . ” Granted, we can expect an investigation commissioned by the attorney general to be worthy of all these adjectives, because he himself is worthy. But that’s not what he meant to say. Critical self-examination is not his forte.

Nobody thought it was. Yet there is always a rumor that modern liberals, such as the people who write speeches for Holder and checks for Obama campaigns, are highly educated. From Plato’s Republic to this day, specialized education has been considered the qualification and justification for rulers in dirigiste systems of government — all of them instituted, of course, by allegedly intelligent and well-educated (as opposed to actually intelligent and well educated) people. The linguistic spoors left by President Obama and his crew make the credentials of the ruling class look less genuine than ever before.

Almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Moral fulsomeness is sometimes hard to distinguish from mere demagoguery. I don’t think I can make that distinction in the case of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. He it was who followed Holder’s lead by making a television address in which he repeatedly demanded vigorous “prosecution” of the cop involved in the Ferguson affair, a cop who hasn’t been charged with any offense. Nixon’s office later explained that by “prosecution” he really meant “investigation” (a distinction without a difference, from the demagogue or the tyrant’s point of view) but maintained that Nixon had no reason to retract anything in his statements.

I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,
Said cunning old Fury:
I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But speaking of public morals: I’m not one of those people who are addicted to the notion that “our country’s moral fabric is being eroded” — if only because that’s a mixed metaphor as well as a cliché. But I did get a kick out of the videos of Travis County Texas District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (and that’s a mouthful right there) experiencing the aftermath of an arrest for driving with her blood alcohol considerably over the legal limit. . . If nothing else, the videos give new life to the old expression “drunk as the lord.” (Drunk as the lord of the manor, you understand, not drunk as the Lord God, despite the fact that Judges 9:13 refers to wine as something that “cheereth God and man.”) All right, all right: I admit it: I’m not in favor of laws against drunk driving, unless it results in damage. And I know I’m in a small minority on that. But almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Even Gov. Rick Perry — he of the slack jaw and wandery eye — was acute enough to reflect on the fact that Lehmberg was the person charged with administering an agency concerned with ethics. So Perry threatened to veto the agency’s appropriation unless she resigned; when she didn’t, he carried out his threat and vetoed the bill. His reward was to be indicted by a grand jury for “abuse of office.” Believe me, I hate to defend Rick Perry, but the prosecutor seems challenged by the rudimentary distinction between use of office and abuse of office.

Nor is grotesque abuse of words simply a Texas problem. No one in the national administration appears capable of finding the right phrase. Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (“Chuck”) Hagel has been reprimanded by this column before, but he has not learned his lesson. This month, he babbled about the attempt to rescue martyred journalist Jim Foley from his crazed jihadi captors, calling it a “flawless operation” that had only one problem: it failed. When the rescuers came, Foley was in some other place. Hagel’s exact words were: “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation but the hostages were not there. We will do everything we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.”

But “everything” must not mean everything — in light of the administration’s stout refusal, in respect to the Foley case, to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to terrorists. That is what unanimous administration spokesmen declined to endorse. But tell me, if you can, where is Bowe Bergdahl today, and where are the five jihadis with whose freedom Bergdahl was not-ransomed on May 31? And tell me, while you’re at it, is Hagel still conducting an investigation about whether Bergdahl left his post or deserted it? Once more, there’s a problem of words, the distinctions between words, the meanings of words . . . Perhaps it’s a conceptual problem. Perhaps it’s important!

Oh, here’s an item. Bergdahl’s attorney has now told Reuters that Bergdahl “is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.” Maybe the president should make another speech congratulating Bergdahl on moving forward. Certainly it’s nice to hear that the young man is making plans for his life, not merely wandering around battle zones in Afghanistan. Somehow, though, I just can’t repress my feeling that it should be Jim Foley who’s moving on to the next chapter of his life. He was entitled to, if anyone was.

It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around.

But perhaps Mr. Hagel was having trouble coming to grips, linguistically, with his own emotions. Many people at the apex of power suffer in this way. There is, for example, the president’s confusion of the word heartbroken with such words as having fun figuring out how to bat little white balls into little tin cups. “We are all heartbroken,” Obama said on August 20, in a tense little speech about Foley’s murder. But those words must not have been quite right. Eight minutes later the broken hearted chief executive was giggling with his buddies on the golf course. You have to admire his powers of recuperation. I would giggle myself, at the absurdity of it all, if I could get the scene of Foley’s beheading out of my mind. The president must have greater strength of character than I have.

The most absurd episode of the month — again, linguistically — was a series of events in Montana, in which sitting Senator John Walsh (Dem.) was found to have plagiarized a 14-page so-called paper submitted as part of a credentialing process in a two-bit graduate program. Walsh and his friends justified his stupidity in many ways: by claiming that he had done nothing wrong (he had used 96 footnotes!); by noting that he wasn’t, by nature, an academic; by claiming that his “mistake” was “unintentional”; by saying that he had served in Iraq, that one of his colleagues in Iraq had killed himself, that he (Walsh) had not killed himself but had been the victim of hundreds of enemy attacks (later reduced to one attack); by suggesting that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though whatever he had was never diagnosed in exactly that way . . . While at school, Walsh, like his president, was known for his devotion to golf.

Finally the senator surrendered his candidacy, and the Democrats came up with another nominee, one Amanda Curtis, probably their worst possible choice. I felt comfortable analyzing Walsh, a lantern-jawed jock who drifted from one official position to another. His mishaps with words practically analyzed themselves. Curtis is different. It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around. Walsh’s supposed thesis paper was a tissue of mild, mainstream clichés, many of them plagiarized. Curtis’s genuine video blog is an exhibit of left-“liberal” thought, unfiltered and unembarrassed. But what is its cause or referent in the real world? That remains unknown. She might as well be reacting to the climate on Mars.

To return to the subject of the educated classes: Can you guess this candidate’s occupation? You’ve got it: she’s a teacher.




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ISIS and the Anarchists

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Some of our best friends at Liberty are libertarian anarchists; others are libertarian supporters of minimal government. I’m in the second camp. (Long-suffering people can refer to my articles in the July 2013 and December 2013 issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.) So I wonder what anarchists think about the ISIS affair.

Here is a private religious organization that raised its own military force, and then devoted it to murdering and torturing all who failed to obey its creed. Such things are not unexampled in Islam; recall the great Mahdist revolt in 19th-century Africa. Some religions waited hundreds of years to take over a state; the original Muslim movement erected a state at once, and that is what ISIS has been doing — transforming itself from a private movement into “the caliphate.”

I imagine that in analyzing this metathesis of private organizations, anarchists will do what they usually do: retell the long story of state aggression, comparing its horrors to the benefits of private organizations that remain private. They will emphasize that ISIS intervened in a situation destabilized by the United States and other governments. They will observe that ISIS acquired its weapons from those left in Iraq by the United States government. So any way you look, it will just be state, state, state.

But that’s my own point. Even if a state is destabilized, other states will take its place, and its resources. Some of them (including once-private organizations, such as, for instance, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the radical Islamists) may be shaped by the worst private emotions — intolerance, sadism, the desire to kill and torture. To a regrettable degree in human history, the gratification of these emotions has taken precedence over the libertarian desire to mind one’s own business, participate in trade, and learn interesting things from one’s neighbors. How do you protect yourself against such vicious but popular passions, except with your own state? Ask the Kurds.

Nevertheless, I’d like to know what anarchists really think about this ISIS thing.




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Iraq and Isolationism

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I have no wisdom to offer about the current crisis in Iraq; I’m simply immobilized by astonishment over the idea, still dominant in Washington, that the United States should arrange and enforce a united Iraq. But I do have some thoughts about libertarian attitudes toward Iraq and other targets of American intervention.

Isolationists — and almost all libertarians are isolationists of some kind — can take pride in opposing the intervention that overthrew Saddam Hussein. It would have been better for virtually all concerned in this mess if Saddam, lunatic fool that he was, had stayed on his throne. Then at least we might not have seen the victory, in one part of the country, of a corrupt Shi’ite authoritarianism, and the worse victory, elsewhere, of a mob of howling Sunni fanatics vowing to lock women in their houses and behead or crucify all opponents of their holy cause. They have already advertised on the internet the massacre of hundreds or thousands of captured and disarmed soldiers of the Iraqi government — the kind of atrocity that even Hitler concealed.

It would have been better for virtually all concerned in this mess if Saddam, lunatic fool that he was, had stayed on his throne.

But there is something about this situation that isolationists should consider more carefully than we usually do. There is evil, intractable evil, in this world, and the more we isolate ourselves from it, the more intractable it reveals itself to be. America’s gradual withdrawal from world military conflict allows us to see more clearly that this evil cannot all be attributed to America, or the West, or colonialism, or imperialism, or G.W. Bush or Barack Obama or even the accursed Lyndon Johnson. The enslavement of women in Nigeria is not an effect of Western intervention. The vile fanaticism of the Iraqi insurgents is not the result of Western intervention. The modern steel gallows on which the religious leaders of Iran hang gay men are not the effect of Western hegemony. Like the other things I just mentioned, they are an attempt to appropriate the material culture of the West and place it in the service of depraved native ideals.

When I see a sign that says “Live and Let Live” my heart leaps up. That is liberty; that is what I believe in. But I do not believe that most cultures in the world are based on that principle, or that they would be if we would simply obey it ourselves. Libertarian commentary on American foreign policy often creates the impression that the extended meaning of “Live and Let Live” is “All Will Be Well If You Do.” It won’t. There is evil in America, and by the same token there is evil in the rest of the planet, and plenty more of it — inexhaustible supplies, in fact. Isolation is not the road to utopia. It should be the road to realism.




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Arab Spring, Winter for Christians?

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In a recent piece, I suggested that the fall of a number of Middle Eastern dictators — most notably Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — actively pushed by the Obama administration, and collectively dubbed “the Arab Spring,” has shown a remarkably ugly side.

One of the ugly features I noted was the removal, in the case of Egypt, of a regime that had been actively fighting the practice of female genital mutilation (the removal of most or all of the clitoris from adolescent girls). Some of our readers were offended by my piece, either thinking, somehow, that I advocated going to war with Egypt, or else shocked that I would dare to criticize the practice at all.

Of course, I was merely commenting on a dubious Obama foreign policy initiative — replacing a disreputable US ally by an unknown force, and hoping for the best.

Well, the situation has developed a more ominous aspect. The Arab Spring is turning out to be not only a winter for women, but also a winter for Christians. Several recent stories bring this to light.

Let’s begin by reviewing the results of the first round of elections for Egypt’s parliament. In a turn eerily reminiscent of what happened in Iran decades ago — when Jimmy Carter, a president as feckless as Obama, withdrew support from the Shah so that “democratic forces” could take over — the resulting elections were victories for hardcore Islamist parties. Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined. The consequence was the mass murder of political dissidents, people deemed “deviant,” and worshipers of religions other than Islam (Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). It also created a state quite supportive of terrorism abroad.

Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined.

In the recent Egyptian elections, Islamists won two-thirds of the seats. And by “Islamist” I am not exaggerating. The Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme organization, from which sprang Al Qaeda, won about 39% of the seats. But the even more extreme Salafists won an astounding 29%. Together, the two liberal parties (the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc) won a pathetic 17% total of the vote.

So much for the idea that waves of freedom and modernization are sweeping over the largest Arab country.

This should have come as no surprise, since earlier elections in Tunisia and Morocco saw Islamist parties win by large majorities. The results for Christians are ominous. The largest group of Christians in the Arab world — the Coptic Orthodox Church — resides in Egypt, where it constitutes 10% of the population. Mubarak, dictatorial bastard that he was, provided protection for them. He is now gone, and the Copts are at the mercy of the Islamists. Mercy, indeed!

Already reports have come in of the killing of Copts, such as the slaughter of 25 or more during a protest they staged in downtown Cairo recently.

The Copts are now deeply demoralized. If they do as the Muslim Brotherhood does — load supporters on buses and drive them to the polls to vote en masse (Chicago-style voting — maybe that’s why Obama supports the Brotherhood!) — they risk civil war. But if they do nothing, the Islamists will target them and slowly turn up the heat. As an American-based Coptic Christian put it, “They [the Copts] are a cowed population in terms of politics. They are afraid and marginalized.”

This is such a familiar pattern. The Islamists kill off or expel the Jews (if any are left by the time the Islamists take over); then they target other religious minorities (Bahai’s, Zoroastrians, pagans, or whatever). The pressure then mounts on Christians.

This is no less than religious ethnic cleansing.

The Egyptian government has recently taken the necessary first step in setting up the apparatus to carry out religious cleansing. It has raided 17 nongovernmental agencies, including three American agencies that are supposed to monitor the “progress” of “democracy” in Egypt — specifically, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. One witness to the raid on the Future House for Legal Studies said that a policeman taking part in it held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary he found and said it proved the organization was engaged in sabotage against Egypt.

One predictable result of the Egyptian war against minorities is happening already: an exodus of Copts to America. One story reports that thousands of Copts have come to America since Obama’s chosen “democracy” swept Egypt. The emigrants report growing levels of overt persecution and violence. One recent émigré, Kirola Andraws, fled to America on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. He was an engineer, but now works as a cook and a deliveryman in Queens. His story, unfortunately, is likely to prove typical.

The report also notes that already this year a number of Coptic churches have been burned down. Islamist-spawned mobs have rampaged against Coptic homes, stores, and church schools. Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht. Yet the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was recently rebuffed by the Obama administration’s State Department when it asked State to put Egypt on its list of countries that violate religious freedom.

This is only the beginning. Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood only controls the legislature, and it is still held in check by the military. But a very recent article reports that the Brotherhood is planning to run some of its chosen “leaders” for the presidency — something it had earlier promised to do. Should the Islamists take over the executive branch, the military’s influence will rapidly wane, and Egypt will likely go the way of Iran.

The report observes that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been in a struggle for 60 years, with the military coming out on top, until now. The military controls about a third of the manufacturing industry in Egypt, for example, so is not likely to surrender power easily. The Egyptian liberals, now seen to be a small minority, seem to be rethinking whether the military is at this point the main threat to them.

Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht.

Whether the military will back down and let the Brotherhood take control is unclear. If the military reacts by dismissing the legislature, Egypt could be in for a protracted and internecine civil war. In either case, however, Christians can expect to be demonized and targeted by the Islamists.

Christians are also being targeted by Islamists in other countries besides Egypt. Nigeria — to cite one such place — recently experienced a wave of terror attacks against Christians, with at least 39 killed. Most of them died when Muslim radicals blew up St. Theresa Catholic Church last Christmas. Shortly thereafter a Protestant church was bombed as well.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have been fleeing, as violence directed at them increases. Since the US toppled Saddam in 2003, 54 Christian churches have been bombed in Iraq, and over 8,900 Christians have been murdered. The number of Christians remaining has of course dwindled, down to 500,000 from 800,000 to perhaps 1.4 million in 2003. With American troops now gone, one suspects that this trend will dramatically increase. In an interesting twist, Christians are fleeing other areas of Iraq and moving to the Kurdish-controlled region, because the Kurds have offered them protection. Yet there are Islamists even among the generally pro-Western Kurds, and Christians have faced some attacks in their territory.

There is in the end the law of unintended consequences, in foreign policy no less than in domestic policy. Progressive liberals — and even conservatives — should start paying attention to it. It is all well and good to desire an “outbreak of freedom,” but one ought to be careful about what one desires, as he might just get it. Many on the Left and the Right welcomed the “Arab Spring,” but it may not turn out to be an explosion of tolerant democracy, as it first seemed to them.

Lest any reader mistake this story for some kind of call to arms, let me make my view explicit: I do not advocate going to war against anyone. But should the Muslim Brotherhood complete its takeover of Egypt and continue its vicious religious persecution of the Copts, our high level of foreign aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid alone — should certainly be stopped. And this should be made clear to the Egyptians in advance.




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The Return of Moktada

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On January 5th, radical Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr returned to Iraq from more than three years of self-imposed exile in Iran. He brought with him the specter of renewed violence in that war-torn country.

For those readers who have done their best to forget America’s Iraq misadventure, here’s a bit of background. Al-Sadr is the son of a revered Shia imam who was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999. He became prominent by leading Shia opposition to the American occupation after 2003. In 2004 his militia, the Mahdi Army, twice battled U.S. troops. Though not victorious, the Sadrists lived to fight another day. Al-Sadr also avoided arrest by U.S. forces on a warrant issued against him for the murder of another cleric. America thus failed to nip in the bud the young cleric’s militant movement.

During the civil war of 2006-07, the Sadrists carried out brutal sectarian cleansings in Baghdad and elsewhere. Even the onset of the American surge of ground troops in early 2007 failed to slow the pace of the carnage. At the same time, the Mahdi Army began to slip out of al-Sadr’s control; by the summer of 2007 the frenzy of violence caused even many Shia to turn against the Sadrists. Then the weight of American power began to have an effect; many Sadrist cadres were killed or captured by US troops. At the end of August al-Sadr declared a unilateral ceasefire and took himself off to the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he sought safety and the opportunity to polish the rather rough edges he had displayed as a political and religious leader.

In his absence the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, given a breathing space by the apparent success of the Surge, was able to consolidate its hold on power. In early 2008 Iraqi government forces, backed by US and British logistical, intelligence, and air support, defeated the Sadrists first in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then (though less decisively) in Baghdad itself. The Sadrist movement had reached its low point. Even so, however, it had once again survived. “We may have wasted an opportunity . . . to kill those that needed to be killed,” an anonymous US official stated at the time. Today that official looks more and more like a prophet.

After the Basra and Baghdad defeats the Sadrists eschewed the gun in favor of the ballot. They scored surprising successes in local elections in 2009. Then, in national elections this past March, they emerged as the second largest Shia bloc, barely trailing al-Maliki’s party. As a result, al-Sadr became a kingmaker; Maliki’s reappointment as prime minister in late 2010 was possible only because the Sadrists supported him. In return they received ministerial posts and at least one provincial governorship. They are in the enviable position of having power without true responsibility: if the government succeeds, they will share in the credit; if it fails, they will blame al-Maliki and bring the government down. The Sadrists have made it clear that al-Maliki has only so much time to restore services, revive the economy, and end what’s left of the American occupation.

An anonymous US official stated that “We may have wasted an opportunity . . . to kill those that needed to be killed.”

The question of a continued American presence is a vexing one for all concerned — except the Sadrists. There are less than 50,000 US troops left in the country. Under an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration, all US forces are supposed to leave by the end of 2011. The Obama administration has stated that it would consider an extension of the US military presence only if Iraq requests it. Al-Maliki would very much like to see some US troops remain, as would the Kurds and most of the Sunnis. But al-Maliki risks looking like an American puppet if he asks for an extended troop presence. The Sadrists, on the other hand, are unequivocally opposed to any US troops remaining after the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline. Their attitude is not merely designed to appeal to Iraqi nationalist feeling. At some point in the future the Sadrists could decide to seize power. They probably would have a good chance of succeeding, provided US troops are not available to stop them.

The US State Department is supposed to take over the American role in Iraq’s security after 2011. Its active arm will be thousands of contractors (that is, mercenaries) whom it has been hiring and trying to put in place before the last uniformed Americans depart. While the Wikileaks revelations have shown that US diplomats are an intelligent and dedicated group of professionals, the idea of putting diplomats in charge of security in a place like Iraq seems a dicey proposition indeed. The employment of contractors will undoubtedly lead to incidents in which Iraqi civilians are killed. The reaction of the Iraqi populace, and specifically the remaining militias, is all too easy to predict. Recall the burned bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in 2003.

The Sunni insurgency, despite heavy blows inflicted by US and Iraqi forces, remains able to carry out widespread and damaging attacks. It may in fact be on the brink of a resurgence, for many Sunnis who joined the pro-US, pro-government Awakening movement have grown disaffected with a Shia-dominated government that has cut back on cash payments and jobs for Sunnis.

We have then the makings of a new explosion in Iraq, with no prospect of an American “Surge II” should the worst occur. Into this maelstrom steps Moktada, the prophet and redeemer of the Shia masses and of the armed fanatics who thirst to avenge past beatings received at the hands of the Americans and al-Maliki. One is reminded of the situation in St. Petersburg in 1917, with al-Maliki in the role of Kerensky and al-Sadr as the “plague bacillus,” Lenin. Admittedly the two men are, for the present, partners, which Kerensky and Lenin never were. But one cannot help but feel that, given the past, their paths must diverge. It may be one, or two, or four years before the situation plays out. But I can’t help but think that one or the other of these men is going to wind up dead.

 




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