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Posts For: May 10, 2007

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

It’s official. A new USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that American attitudes about Iraq are schizophrenic—at least on the surface.

In a sampling taken May 4-6, 68 percent of respondents said that they think it is likely a withdrawal of U.S. forces would lead to “a full-scale civil war and result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis.” 66 percent believe “al Qaeda would use Iraq as a base for its terrorist operations.” 52 percent believe “a broader war involving several countries in the Middle East would break out.” And 55 percent believe “there would be new terrorist attacks against the U.S., like the ones that occurred on 9/11.”

All of those conclusions would seem to strengthen the case for “staying the course,” as President Bush proposes. Yet 59 percent of respondents say that we should “set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq and stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq at that time.” Only 36 percent say that we should “keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation gets better.”

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It’s official. A new USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that American attitudes about Iraq are schizophrenic—at least on the surface.

In a sampling taken May 4-6, 68 percent of respondents said that they think it is likely a withdrawal of U.S. forces would lead to “a full-scale civil war and result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis.” 66 percent believe “al Qaeda would use Iraq as a base for its terrorist operations.” 52 percent believe “a broader war involving several countries in the Middle East would break out.” And 55 percent believe “there would be new terrorist attacks against the U.S., like the ones that occurred on 9/11.”

All of those conclusions would seem to strengthen the case for “staying the course,” as President Bush proposes. Yet 59 percent of respondents say that we should “set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq and stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq at that time.” Only 36 percent say that we should “keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation gets better.”

How to square the circle? How to reconcile Americans’ (well-founded) belief that disaster will follow if we leave Iraq with their equally intense desire to do just that? Apparently, it comes down to the fact that most Americans don’t think that our staying in Iraq staves off any of the disasters they envision. Of those surveyed, 58 percent said that the likelihood of terrorist attacks on the U.S. would not be affected by leaving Iraq or by staying the course there.

But that conclusion is at odds with the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community. The National Intelligence Estimate, issued in January, had this to say:

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this estimate . . . we judge that the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries—invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally—might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] would attempt to use parts of the country—particularly al-Anbar province—to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.

All of this—and in particular the part about al Qaeda—suggests that the terrorist threat against the U.S. would increase if our troops were to leave Iraq. And, although National Intelligence Estimates have been wrong before, there is good reason to think that the consensus conclusion is right on this issue.

In the past four years, Iraq has become the central front in the global war on terrorism. If we leave prematurely, it will be seen as a victory for al Qaeda, which will then shift resources to fight us on other battlefields, starting with Afghanistan.

Democrats are dreaming if they think that stationing U.S. Special Forces troops “in the region”—i.e., hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from the conflict’s center—could do much to contain the damage. How many Special Forces raids do we conduct today against terrorist safehouses in Iran or Syria? None, as far as I know. If we pull the bulk of our forces out of Iraq, logistical and political complications would prevent the kind of regular commando incursions needed to contain the al-Qaeda threat. In any case, we wouldn’t have the human intelligence to act. Spy satellites simply won’t provide the actionable intelligence we’d need.

Talk of the Iraqi “civil war” has distracted the American people from the real stakes in Iraq. The administration would be well advised to remind everyone of what’s involved—though by this time its credibility is so shot that its warnings may not be believed by anyone not already firmly in the anti-withdrawal camp.

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Power to Powerline

Powerline.com has a broad national following. But one of the things that makes it such an engaging and successful site is the way it reports on local happenings in and around Minneapolis. Today, for example, it takes apart a column about local real estate by a Star Tribune regular, whom powerline calls, in its unabashed voice, “a third-rate columnist for a second-rate newspaper.” Never mind that the issue—the size of a particular house on the shore of Minneapolis’s Lake Calhoun—is of little moment to a Brooklynite like me. Powerline manages to bring alive the mindless passions and petty resentments and politically correct politics that seem to permeate the local newspaper of record.

The point is that many of the local stories powerline brings to a national audience are not local at all. The website has been on top of the Flying Imams case from the beginning. It has introduced us to the imposition of shar’ia law in Minneapolis, with “Somali taxi drivers who refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol” and “Target cashiers who refuse to ring up pork products.” Are such things happening elsewhere in the country, one wonders, or only in the twin cities?

My own hunch, on that score, is that the only thing truly special about Minneapolis is the presence there of a small band of extraordinary guys working away in their pajamas.

To dress for success as a pundit, click here.

To dress for success as a blogger, click here.

Powerline.com has a broad national following. But one of the things that makes it such an engaging and successful site is the way it reports on local happenings in and around Minneapolis. Today, for example, it takes apart a column about local real estate by a Star Tribune regular, whom powerline calls, in its unabashed voice, “a third-rate columnist for a second-rate newspaper.” Never mind that the issue—the size of a particular house on the shore of Minneapolis’s Lake Calhoun—is of little moment to a Brooklynite like me. Powerline manages to bring alive the mindless passions and petty resentments and politically correct politics that seem to permeate the local newspaper of record.

The point is that many of the local stories powerline brings to a national audience are not local at all. The website has been on top of the Flying Imams case from the beginning. It has introduced us to the imposition of shar’ia law in Minneapolis, with “Somali taxi drivers who refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol” and “Target cashiers who refuse to ring up pork products.” Are such things happening elsewhere in the country, one wonders, or only in the twin cities?

My own hunch, on that score, is that the only thing truly special about Minneapolis is the presence there of a small band of extraordinary guys working away in their pajamas.

To dress for success as a pundit, click here.

To dress for success as a blogger, click here.

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Taiwan’s Missile Gap

Last week the Bush administration publicly suggested that Taiwan should halt plans to produce long-range missiles capable of hitting targets in mainland China. “The U.S. view is that the focus should be on defensive weapons, not on offensive weapons,” said Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy on the island. The administration instead proposes to sell Taiwan the Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile system as part of a larger $18-billion package of American arms.

But Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian is not content with purely defensive missiles: he wants a real deterrent. Washington seems to forget that China has more than 900 missiles pointed at Taiwan and is, by all accounts, increasing the size of its offensive arsenal by about 50 missiles a year. Taiwan’s Patriot PAC-2 and Tien Kung surface-to-air missiles can reach China’s Fujian province, directly across the Taiwan Strait, though they would not be accurate if used against surface targets. Taiwan’s defense ministry says it is developing surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting Chinese military bases. But it remains unclear if the U.S. will provide the Taiwanese with the sophisticated guidance systems necessary to operate them. Read More

Last week the Bush administration publicly suggested that Taiwan should halt plans to produce long-range missiles capable of hitting targets in mainland China. “The U.S. view is that the focus should be on defensive weapons, not on offensive weapons,” said Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy on the island. The administration instead proposes to sell Taiwan the Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile system as part of a larger $18-billion package of American arms.

But Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian is not content with purely defensive missiles: he wants a real deterrent. Washington seems to forget that China has more than 900 missiles pointed at Taiwan and is, by all accounts, increasing the size of its offensive arsenal by about 50 missiles a year. Taiwan’s Patriot PAC-2 and Tien Kung surface-to-air missiles can reach China’s Fujian province, directly across the Taiwan Strait, though they would not be accurate if used against surface targets. Taiwan’s defense ministry says it is developing surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting Chinese military bases. But it remains unclear if the U.S. will provide the Taiwanese with the sophisticated guidance systems necessary to operate them.

President Bush, who in 2001 promised that he would do “whatever it took” to defend the island, has slowly scaled back this commitment in the face of Chinese pressure. Yet at the same time, as Stephen Young’s comment suggests, he also wants to deny the Taiwanese their own credible deterrent against China. This position makes no sense and can’t be sustained.

The Taiwanese will either obtain a firm defense pledge from Washington or develop the means to defend themselves. In the late 1980’s, the Reagan administration was able to stop Taipei’s last known independent attempt to develop nuclear weapons because the Taiwanese had confidence in America’s commitment to defending them.

Will Taiwan feel the same way in the future? Not if the U.S. fails to affirm that commitment. Taipei will then have little choice but to develop a deterrent independently. As President Chen said last July, after North Korea test-fired a volley of missiles: “Peace cannot be achieved with wishful thinking. We can stop a war only by being well-prepared for a war and avoid a war by gaining the capability of winning a war.”

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The Greening of the CIA

Peter Hoekstra, until January the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has a noteworthy piece in the Wall Street Journal today, Environmental Intelligence, which takes up where I left off last month in my posting, CIA vs. MPG.

As I noted there, thanks to Clinton-era mandates the CIA has been spending a lot of time trying to reduce the amount of gasoline its operatives consume while driving LDV’s—the CIA acronym for a “light-duty vehicle,” otherwise known as a car.

Hoekstra, one of the best-informed and most thoughtful students of intelligence issues in Congress, reports on renewed efforts by the Democratic majority to green the spy agency even further. Among other things, its proposed 2008 intelligence authorization bill will compel the CIA to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the effects of environmental change.

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Peter Hoekstra, until January the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has a noteworthy piece in the Wall Street Journal today, Environmental Intelligence, which takes up where I left off last month in my posting, CIA vs. MPG.

As I noted there, thanks to Clinton-era mandates the CIA has been spending a lot of time trying to reduce the amount of gasoline its operatives consume while driving LDV’s—the CIA acronym for a “light-duty vehicle,” otherwise known as a car.

Hoekstra, one of the best-informed and most thoughtful students of intelligence issues in Congress, reports on renewed efforts by the Democratic majority to green the spy agency even further. Among other things, its proposed 2008 intelligence authorization bill will compel the CIA to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the effects of environmental change.

Hoekstra calls this “a throwback to the mistakes of the 1990’s when scarce resources were diverted to issues that clearly were not related to the businesses of intelligence.” He notes that this diversion, initiated by Clinton’s second CIA director John Deutch and continued by Deutch’s successor George Tenet—who kept alive a bureaucratic unit called the Director of Central Intelligence Environmental Center—came with a stiff price tag.

The Center had ordered intelligence analysts and collectors to write about volcano eruptions, fish schools, and air pollution. And it also produced an annual Earth Day edition of the highly classified President’s Daily Brief.

At the direction of the Center, spy satellites were tasked to conduct what some in the press dubbed “environmental peeking.” The diversion meant fewer overhead images of vital national security concerns, such as Iran, North Korea, and al Qaeda.

The 1990’s turned out to be fateful years for American security. We will never know what the CIA missed thanks to this trade-off in resource allocation.

Back in the 1970’s, Richard Nixon used to drench the CIA with contempt. “What the hell do those clowns do out there in Langley,” he said at one point. “What use are they? They’ve got 40,000 people over there reading newspapers.” At another point he grumbled that the agency “tells me nothing I don’t read three days earlier in the New York Times.”

Nixon, of course, was venting, as was his wont. But there is no question that the spy agency’s problems have been chronic, culminating in its failure to avert the 9/11 plot and its slam-dunk assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Of course, some of its failures have been the result of absurd Congressional mandates. But even with respect to these, the agency’s senior management has all too willingly rushed to go along.

Transforming the CIA into a global-warming research center is not going to solve its problems. Nixon had another idea, though—which, whatever its merits or demerits, would be better than turning the agency into a replica of the EPA: “Get rid of the clowns—cut personnel 40 percent. Its info is worthless.”

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A Loss for the Blogosphere

Sandmonkey, the well-known Arab blogger who recently announced an end to his blogging, may have been the most deliciously irreverent voice in the entire blogosphere. A 26-year old Egyptian, he went to college in Massachusetts, where he cultivated fluency not only in the American tongue but also in the folkways of global youth culture. (His moniker is a pejorative term for Arab, he explained to me when I first met him, amazed that I didn’t know it. Brandishing it was typical of his in-your-face style.)

Sandmonkey reveled in freedom; back in Egypt, he behaved as if he were free, almost. With the help of the Internet he spoke his mind pseudonymously, but with breathtaking audacity. His website, for instance, appealed for financial contributions by asking readers to “Support the Neo-con American Right-wing Zionist Christian Imperialist Conspiracy in the Middle-east!”

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Sandmonkey, the well-known Arab blogger who recently announced an end to his blogging, may have been the most deliciously irreverent voice in the entire blogosphere. A 26-year old Egyptian, he went to college in Massachusetts, where he cultivated fluency not only in the American tongue but also in the folkways of global youth culture. (His moniker is a pejorative term for Arab, he explained to me when I first met him, amazed that I didn’t know it. Brandishing it was typical of his in-your-face style.)

Sandmonkey reveled in freedom; back in Egypt, he behaved as if he were free, almost. With the help of the Internet he spoke his mind pseudonymously, but with breathtaking audacity. His website, for instance, appealed for financial contributions by asking readers to “Support the Neo-con American Right-wing Zionist Christian Imperialist Conspiracy in the Middle-east!”

Here is Sandmonkey on constitutional reform in Egypt:

Mubarak is mulling a constitutional change in the amendment concerning presidential elections. The aim, they say, is to make it easier for candidates to run for President. The Sandmonkey sources have informed him that the proposed changes consist of 2 amendments:

1) The Presidential candidate has to be called Gamal Mohamed Hosny Mubarak.

2) His father has to be the current President of Egypt.

Anyone who those two conditions apply to is free to run in our next totally democratic elections.

When a package of 35 amendments was rammed through the Egyptian People’s Assembly and then put to a snap referendum, most of the opposition (and more than 90 percent of the population) refused to take part. But Sandmonkey took a different tack:

Let’s say that your country is having a fake referendum, one where you know that the dead will show up miraculously and vote Yes for whatever shit Mubarak suggests, thus making your vote for no entirely useless. So, what do you do? Well, you could either boycott the vote, go and vote no, or go and vote no a couple of times in order to level the playing field a little. You figure if they cheat, you should cheat too. Fight fire with fire and all. But how would you do that exactly?

You vote No, put in your vote, and then dip your finger in the “unwashable” and “unremoveable” voting Ink. You go to a Pharmacy, get nail-polish remover, and remove the voting ink.

Then Sandmonkey went to a different polling station and voted “no” again, and then repeated the procedure, altogether casting three votes against the amendments and in the process demonstrating the porousness of Egypt’s barriers against election fraud.

Sandmonkey also blogged tirelessly through last summer’s war in Lebanon, hurling verbal brickbats at Hezbollah and Israel alike, but always reserving some barbs for Egypt. In one post, he wrote:

A couple of days ago I was speaking with Lisa [an Israeli blogger], and she was telling me how depressed she was after seeing an Israeli refugee camp for people escaping the North. I decided to check her flickr account to see the pictures of how an Israeli refugee camp looks like, and she was right, it depressed the hell out of me. Although, the cause of both of our depressions wasn’t the same. The arab readers will know exactly what I mean.

A series of six photos of the camp’s living quarters, common area, and dining facility followed, then below it, Sandmonkey’s punchline:

That’s their refugee camps. I swear to god I could sell this as a tourist destination and egyptian tourists would go. The first 2 weeks would get fully booked . . . in 5 minutes. Crap!

The usual excuse of the Egyptian government for its repressions is the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. But the regime itself is far friendlier to the Brotherhood than is Sandmonkey, who often referred to Islamists as “jihady fucks” and whose blog roll gave pride of place to like-minded members of what he called the “anti-jihady club.”

Now the Egyptian government has begun imprisoning bloggers, a measure that even the Saudi government has not taken. As a result of participating in demonstrations, Sandmonkey believes his identity has been compromised. The mukhabarat has been asking neighbors about him. So Sandmonkey announced that he is going to stop blogging and organize a committee to defend bloggers. I wish him success in this endeavor. But most of all I wish to hear his iconoclastic voice again, soon, from Egypt, in his own name and without fear of arrest.

* Correction: My broadside on contentions against Frances Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, referred to “recent” comments of his about Copts and press freedom. I quoted a transcript from an interview he gave on March 16. What I missed, however, was that the interview was in 2006, not 2007. Downplaying the mistreatment of Copts was no less wrong in 2006 than it is in 2007. But the trend in press freedom is worse now than it was then, as Sandmonkey’s case exemplifies, so my criticism of Ricciardone’s words on that subject as being particularly untimely was misplaced. I apologize to him and to readers.

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