Monday, February 20, 2023

Speaking of Which

I'm pretty upset at Twitter and Facebook. My initial tweet on yesterday's Speaking of Iraq didn't even show up in my feed. On closer examination, it appears it has only been seen by 75 of my 589 followers. It looks like my Music Week announcements usually get close to 300 views, but Speaking of Which rarely (and then only barely) tops 200. I complain about Matt Taibbi flooding the feed with multiple links to his Substack pieces, but maybe he's just fighting the algorithm. I decided to try again:

Why is it that what's remembered of Bush's war on Iraq is the lies, which were obviously lies at the time? Deeper question is why did anyone buy the logic that the lies supported going to war. I look back at 2003 here. If I knew better, why didn't you?

I also tacked a comment onto a Rick Perlstein response to a gripe about "2000s progressive blogs" messing up. Clearly, I didn't, but while there were a few putative leftists backing the war (Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman; less known at the time was Peter Beinart), they were few in number. The real test of principles and understanding was Afghanistan, one that was failed by a lot of people who should have known better (including Bernie Sanders; Barbara Lee was the only one in Congress to object).

I rarely post notices to Facebook (aside from Music Week, which I send to the Expert Witness group), but I put a lot of work into this one, and thought this was important enough to share. So I posted this. It, too, hasn't showed up in my feed, nor do I see any evidence (comments, likes) that anyone else has seen it. I was less pressured for space, so I wrote a bit more there:

For the 20th anniversary of Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, I thought I'd dust off my old blog posts and see how they've held up. I cut the blog posts off on the 1st anniversary, but you can follow links to the rest. I also added a new introduction and some notes on later events, to check how much I got wrong (very little -- even without all the info, my gut reaction that Bush didn't know what he was doing, and would screw even that up, was pretty sound. I also went through the book notes file and pulled out a reading list for Iraq, so you'll find more there, both background and direction.

By the way, in looking through my old notes, I found this quote from Patrick Cockburn's 2006 book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq:

Much of this book has been about the peculiarities of Iraq and the mistakes made by Americans when occupying it. But not all the reasons which led Washington to invade were unique to the US. For the two years before 9/11 I lived in Moscow. I had seen how Vladimir Putin had risen from obscurity in 1999 in the weeks after four apartment buildings were mysteriously bombed in Moscow killing 300 people. Putin had presented himself as Russia's no-nonsense defender against terrorism. He used this threat to launch his own small victorious war against Chechnya and manipulated a minor threat tot he state to win and hold the presidency. He speedily demolished the free press. George W. Bush followed almost exactly in Putin's footsteps two years later in the wake of the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center. Civil liberties were curtailed. The same authoritarian rhetoric was employed. War was declared on terrorism. The American and Russian governments, the two former protagonists in the Cold War, latched on to the same limited 'terrorist' threat to justify and expand their authority. Putin and Bush, though neither were ever in the army, started to walk with the same military swagger.

Bush, of course, was retired by term limits, not that his 21% approval rating at the end of his second term would have gotten him a Rooseveltian third term. Putin escaped that fate, mostly because Chechnya was better contained (although the war wasn't without its embarrassments, including some terror incidents). In short, Putin lived to fight another day, which he did in Georgia, in Syria, and now in Ukraine. The first two worked out OK, for reasons I won't go into. What matters, of course, is once a leader gets a taste for war, that will be favored as an option until it leads to disaster.

The problem we've seen both in Bush and Putin is that both had trouble recognizing disaster when it struck, which has only led to further pointless suffering. There's a story about when they met, when Bush claimed to look into Putin's soul. He seemed to like what he saw. As far as I know, Putin isn't on record about Bush's soul, so one can only speculate.

Given the amount of time I spent on Iraq, I skipped over economic issues (including bank bailouts) completely. Also Israel, train wrecks, and I barely noted the big climate disaster (bad as Iraq is now, I hate to imagine it in 2030).

Top story threads:

Climate: This should be the week's top story, but I've only barely seen it reported:

Trump, DeSantis, et al: Trump's getting most of the press this time, in anticipation of his first indictment. But also I skipped a bunch of DeSantis links, because they seemed too lame. It's clearer than ever that he's running, and straight up the Trump lane.

Iraq: 20 Years In: Scattered topics then and now, the past much better reported than the present, although there are still big gaps in our understanding of the past.

  • Ben Burgis: [03-20] The Invasion of Iraq Wasn't a "Mistake." It Was a Crime.

  • Robert Draper: [03-20] Iraq, 20 Years Later: A Changed Washington and a Terrible Toll on America: This always worried me more than the terrible things that war would do to the Iraqi people, partly because it's hard to discern and evaluate. Could be a long subject, and I'm not sure this even scratches the surface.

  • Connor Echols: [03-17] A requiem for a lost Iraq: "Two decades after the invasion, the Iraqi people are still struggling to pick up the pieces."

  • Max Fisher: [03-18] 20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade? Huh? His "Searching for Motive" parades a lot of crap which has been thoroughly debunked. He quotes Wolfowitz as admitting WMD was picked as "the one issue that everyone could agree on." Yet he has no clue why that should matter. There is a simple reason that nobody talks about: Saddam Hussein's very existence was an insult to American power. Bush's mob saw the US as the world's supreme superpower, and expected everyone to kowtow to their wishes. Perhaps elsewhere (say, North Korea) they could have ignored him, but past history, as well as oil and Israel, precluded that. So they felt they had to destroy him, to reassert the natural order of American world power. And the people who still defend that decision, who take pride in it, do so because they can claim a measure of victory in destroying Hussein. Sure, it shows they cared not a whit about anything else, least of all the cost and waste of their hubris. But the original goal says as much. If you didn't hear that at the time, it just shows how sheltered you were from the idea that these guys were pure evil.

  • Nicholas Guyatt: [03-20] Twitter thread: "For those too young to have lived through what happened twenty years ago, a thread of the self-styled left/liberal types endorsing the invasion of Iraq." Image is The New York Times Magazine cover story by Michael Ignatieff, called "The American Empire (Get Used to It.)." Additional entries include snaps of key quotes from Ignatieff, David Remnick, Bill Keller, Leon Wieseltier, Lawrence F Kaplan, Elie Wiesel, Paul Berman, Joseph Nye, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Thomas Friedman endorsing the war. He also shows book covers of: Noah Freedman: After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Diplomacy; and Kenneth Pollack: The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. And an additional quote from Jonah Goldberg. One of the commenters also nominated: Dan Savage, Peter Beinart, Sam Harris, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens, and Jonathan Chait. Many more good comments.

  • John B Judis: [03-19] Iraq, the U.S., and The New Republic: 20 Years Later, Lessons Not Learned: "I was one of the few TNR staffers in 2003 who opposed the invasion. The magazine's case for war has not aged well."

  • Louisa Loveluck/Mustafa Salim: [03-18] U.S. veterans won justice for burn pit exposure. Iraqis were forgotten. Link title was: "How a cancer-causing environmental debacle looms over the U.S. legacy in Iraq." But somehow the actual title put the Americans first.

  • Ray McGovern: [03-20] The Uses and Abuses of National Intelligence Estimates: Cites Robert Draper from 2020: Colin Powell Still Wants Answers.

  • Alissa J Rubin: [03-20] 20 Years After U.S. Invasion, Iraq Is a Freer Place, but Not a Hopeful One.

  • Nadine Talaat: [03-20] The Bloodbath in Iraq Shows the US Can Never Be a "Global Policeman": Not the way I'd put it, but the phrase "global policeman" has always been a source of confusion. The problem is that American soldiers are rigorously trained to kill people and blow things up, and really aren't much good for anything else. Put them in a situation the don't understand, and threaten them, and they'll kill people and blow things up. That's their nature. A subhed here is "International Law in Ruins": That should be elaborated on more. International law was never in very good shape, but suffered a massive setback when Bush gave up on the UN and decided to form his "coalition of the willing."

  • Ishaan Tharoor: [03-20] How the U.S. broke Iraq.

  • Peter Van Vuren: [03-16] How I spent a year losing hearts and minds in Iraq.

  • Robert Wright: [03-17] Bush's lies weren't the problem: We now know that WMD was never the reason Bush wanted to invade Iraq. It just seemed like the easiest (which is to say scariest) story to spin to the masses. But it required a mountain of lies, which were unraveling almost as fast as they could be concocted. But also, invasion was the worst possible way of keeping Iraq from using WMDs (which really only ever meant chemical weapons, as that was all Iraq had the technology for). Much better to have an agreement to dispose of them (which had been in place since 1990) and inspectors on the ground to verify conformance (which had happened for several years, and again for several months under threat of war). The problem is that the inspectors didn't find any. If eliminating WMDs was the goal, inspections already had that covered. So clearly that wasn't the reason for launching an invasion.

  • Responsible Statecraft: [03-20] Symposium: Aside from Bush & Cheney who is at fault for the Iraq War? They asked twenty-some notables, who singled out (some named two, which I've generally split): Joe Biden (2), Laura Bush, Douglas Feith, Thomas Friedman, Michael R Gordon and The New York Times, Jacob Heilbrunn, Christopher Hitchens, Saddam Hussein, Robert Kagan (2), William Kristol, Bill Luti, Richard Perle (2), Ken Pollack, Colin Powell (2), Abram Shulsky, Woodrow Wilson, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, David Wurmser, unknown mastermind behind the Niger memo forgery, the Israel lobby.

    Before I comment on the list, my pick would have been Bill Clinton, who failed to solve the problem with Iraq, and who made it worse with his capricious bombing runs and his support for the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. I also blame Clinton for his pro-war stance in 1989, which once he was elected in 1992 politically vindicated the hawk wing of the Democratic Party, notably Al Gore Jr. and Joe Lieberman (who share significant blame for the later war, and legitimized those who voted for the war in 2003, including Biden, Richard Gephardt, Hillary Clinton, and most egregiously John Kerry).

    As for the rest: I blame Wilson for lots of things, but his attempt to turn America away from isolationism is only loosely relevant here. Moreover, Wilson pointedly refused to join the war against the Ottoman Empire, or to participate in the colonial carve up of the Middle East. If you want someone from that vintage, Winston Churchill is your man. The British invaded Iraq, used poison gas, and installed a puppet king, a dynasty that controlled the country until 1959. The Baath was largely a reaction against British misrule, and Americans never forgave them for breaking the Baghdad Pact (CENTO). Blaming Hussein because Americans never figured out how to deal with him is also silly. After GHW Bush likened him to Hitler, no American dared deal with him. The failure to get rid of "Hitler" in 1990 did more than anything to make a second war inevitable.

    There are three other non-choices: Why pick Laura Bush, who had very little public profile (other than allowing herself to be trotted out to promote women's rights in Afghanistan)? Why pick some anonymous CIA functionary for the instantly discredited Niger memo when George Tenet was still waiting on the sidelines? And why the Israel Lobby? Well, there, at least, Israel had singled Hussein out as public enemy number one, and practically everyone else was carrying their water.

    The rest are a conspicuous but incomplete rogues gallery of neocon functionaries and media supplicants (Hitchens is an outlier, but tried so very hard to get in). All contributed, as did many others (Donald Rumsfeld is the most glaring omission). It strikes me that this list is light on generals (other than Powell; although I've seen reference that some prominent ones, like Anthony Zinni, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Barry McCaffrey, had misgivings; the current brass went along, although some of them got out quick after the "mission accomplished" banner). Also politicians: the aforementioned Democrats (who should have known better), but also the even more hawkish Republicans, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Oh, and let's not forget Tony Blair. Without him there wouldn't have been a "coalition of the willing." And Ahmed Chalabi, who did so much to seduce Washington? I also recall writers like Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington -- hacks who were taken seriously as "experts."

  • Matt Taibbi: [2016-03-22] 16 Years Later, How the Press That Sold the Iraq War Got Away With It: Four-year-old excerpt from his book, Hate, Inc. And why there were no consequences for getting it wrong, as long as they erred on the side of the official line.

Ukraine War: Continues, of course, with intransigence on both sides.

Abortion: The "pro-life" terror continues. I skipped over a link about a South Carolina bill that wants to establish the death penalty for women who have abortions. There's no limit to what they'll demand.

Other stories:

Daniel Bessner: [03-06] Does American Fascism Exist? Review of Bruce Kuklick: Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture. After noting various definitions and their discontents, asks the question: "Should we on the left use the term 'fascism'?" As someone who knows a fair amount about the history of fascist movements in Europe between the wars, I find it helps with comparisons, but as a label for organizing against the far right, I doubt it's all that useful. And sure, part of the problem is that the right has been extremely sloppy in using the term, which at least they have the decency to regard as a negative (mostly using it on the left). Also see the comment on this review by Jonathan Chait: [03-13] The Republican Party May Not Be Fascist, but It's Definitely Getting Fasci-er, subhed: "The left-wing case for downplaying authoritarianism is not convincing." More proof that Chait never misses a chance to disparage the left, apparently complaining that we're the ones who don't call Republicans fascists enough.

By the way, there's a link here to a 2020 piece by Bessner: America Has No Duty to Rule the World This is a review of Steven Wertheim: Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. I've read that book, which shows how quickly influential Americans came upon the idea of American global supremacy as soon as the US declared war on Germany and Japan. For details of how those ideas played out, you'll need to turn to later histories, like the works of Gabriel and Joyce Kolko: The Politics of War and The Limits of Power.

Jonathan Chait: [03-20] Why Joe Biden's Honeymoon With Progressives Is Coming to an End: "Expect a lot more Democratic infighting." It's true that Biden has disappointed on several issues lately. Maybe this has something to do with Jeffrey Zients replacing Ron Klain as chief of staff. If so, it might get worse, but unless a serious challenger emerges -- like Teddy Kennedy going after Jimmy Carter -- I expect the disputes will be strictly over issues. And the democratic wing of the party has issues that are too popular for Biden to ignore.

Matthew Cooper: [03-15] Let's Retire the Word "Woke": Fine with me. I doubt I've ever used the word, except when quoting right-wingers ritualistically decrying it (which, to be sure, is often absurd enough to be amusing). As I understand it, the word was meant to convert a negative (not sounding or acting racist) into a positive (being anti-racist). While that seems laudable, the proof is often in pointing out how other people are racist, sometimes subtly or even subconsciously. I don't doubt that there are times when that is called for, but these days I'm more inclined to let minor slights slide (unless, of course, they are embedded in power, as with cops and judges). White people don't have to become woke. As long as they can avoid public displays and/or respond positive to shaming when they don't, racism will continue to fade into the past (as it's been doing for decades now, even if not fast enough).

For more on woke, see:

  • Nathan J Robinson: [03-17] Time to End the Use of "Woke" as a Pejorative: Starts with a bit of interview between Briahna Gray and Bethany Mandel ("the editor of a series of right-wing children's books"), where the latter couldn't define "woke," then follows that up with various other clueless right-wing definitions of "woke." The advice is to the right, but they're unlikely to take it.

Whizy Kim: [03-17] Prices at the supermarket keep rising. So do corporate profits. "Is it really inflation? Or something else?" Every sector of industry has been concentrating for years, but were restrained from raising prices because no one wants to look too greedy (except to stockholders). However, once word got out that we were in for a round of inflation, companies moved fast to reap their monopoly gains, a self-fulfilling prophecy. At least that's what I see happening, and that's most the consistent explanation for profits increasing along with prices. Of course, rising prices also mean costs, but big monopoly retailers have more leverage to cap their costs.

Mike Konczal: [03-17] A Better AEI Graphic of Inflation Over the Past 20 Years.

Nathan J Robinson: [03-20] The French Understand That Work Sucks: French president Macron is trying to push through a bill that raises the retirement age from 62 to 64, and it's very unpopular. It's worth remembering that you don't have to stop working when you retire, but you do gain the freedom to work as you want, without having to work for a living, and without having to work under someone else's control.

Dylan Scott: [03-17] Medicare is being privatized right before our eyes: "The enormous success of Medicare Advantage -- and the potential risks -- explained." The program costs more than regular Medicare, and delivers less. Why is enrollment growing? For one thing, the extra costs are largely hidden from the public. The advantage is that while the plans are more restrictive, they often offer relief from the co-payments and limits built into Medicare (supplemental insurance can eliminate those, but costs quite a bit extra).

Ian Ward: [03-19] The fringe group that broke the GOP's brain -- and helped the party win elections: Interview about the John Birch Society with Matthew Dallek, author of Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the Far Right.

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