February 28, 2007

A Little History for Someone Who Should Know Better

Birthed in a bid to silence dissent, one of the recurring memes of the Bush Administration is that the so-called Global War On Terror (GWOT) is somehow a modern echo of the "the last good war," World War II. Top officials from the president himself to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have made a concerted effort to link the sense of purpose and national peril faced by the United States in the early 1940's with the uninvolved war of choice we are prosecuting today in Iraq. Despite the White House's dogged determination to slather lipstick on the Iraq War swine, given more than a few moments thought, such a comparison is patently ridiculous.

Where Nazi Germany was one of the most powerful states in the world at the time, Iraq is a third world country; Nazi Germany possessed one of the mightiest militaries on the planet in the late thirties and early forties, while Iraq's forces had been bottled up and decimated by sanctions after the first Gulf War; World War II saw more than 407,000 American war dead, while in Iraq "only" about 3,100 have been killed (to date); World War II was fought using a draft and rationing at home, while the Iraq War is being shouldered entirely by volunteer armed forces, and there is virtually no effect on the average American who doesn't have friends or relatives in the service; etc., etc.

Still, last weekend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave it another go, this time in reference to stated plans by Senate majority leadership to amend the authorization for the use of force Congress granted President Bush after 9/11. Saturday, on Fox News, Ms. Rice, who is reputed to have a bachelors degree, a masters degree and a doctorate in political science, spewed forth the following exercise in flop-sweat-soaked hyperbole:

I know it's extremely difficult. And yes, as the president has said, we've now overthrown Saddam Hussein. We are in a different situation, even, some would say, a different war. But the consolidation of a stable and democratic Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is a part of what America owes to the Iraqi people, owes to the region and owes to ourselves so that our own security is there.

Chris, it would be like saying that after Adolf Hitler was overthrown, we needed to change, then, the resolution that allowed the United States to do that so that we could deal with creating a stable environment in Europe after he was overthrown. It's a part of a continuum of what we're trying to do in Iraq.

In addition to the examples I cited above of the utter, insulting inappropriateness of comparing World War II and the Iraq War, within this statement there is a consistent thread of not only what we've come to recognize as the usual misguided Bush Administration fear-mongering, but a level of ignorance and contempt for the intelligence of her audience that should remove any lingering doubts that Condoleezza Rice is completely unqualified for public office.

Keith Olbermann explains:

February 22, 2007

Slowly Starving the Fertile Crescent

Despite - or perhaps because of - it's vast oil wealth, Iraq has historically been a net food importer, cultivating only fifty to sixty percent of its arable land. While human rights abuses and smaller scale turmoil over the past several decades resulted in periodic displacement for portions of the population, income from petroleum - through either open trade or the now-infamous United Nations Oil for Food Program - ensured that famine was not a national concern.

As domestic security in the wake of the U.S. invasion has worsened however, supplying food to the Iraqi population has become increasingly difficult. The situation has been exacerbated by an explosion in the number of refugees within the country's borders, and growing numbers of Iraqis have been forced to rely on not just increasingly expensive imported food, but on food aid, as well. The International Organization for Migration in Iraq (IOM Iraq) reports that there are now more than 1.5 million displaced people in Iraq- a number significantly higher than all of the people living in the state of Idaho - and that as much as 40% of the entire population is dependent on such assistance for survival.

With former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer's partially-implemented free market reforms, reported overall economic expansion in Iraq has ballooned, with the Al Hayat newspaper touting a torrid rate as high as 28.4% in 2005. While there are unquestionably new businesses and legitimate growth in parts of the country - notably the Kurdish controlled north - little of it is focused on the production of food, and a large number of small farmers have gone bankrupt, unable to compete against newly tariff-free competition from large multinational companies. Today, the vast majority of privately sold consumables came from the $4 billion dollars in imports that entered Iraq last year, and there are virtually no exports whatsoever.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad and surrounding provinces - the heart of the fight for control of Iraq -the food supply situation is on the verge of becoming dire. While food in aid shipments is often of lower quality, the government has also been forced to destroy or reject millions of tons of it because of contamination and spoilage. Compounding that problem, the few local farmers who are still working are hindered from bringing their goods to market by the scarcity of gasoline and the high level of sectarian violence; add in burgeoning inflation that makes imports prohibitively expensive, and significant portions of Iraq are finding it harder to feed themselves week by week. As a representative from Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture explains:
Local agricultural production is almost nil. The limited loans given by the ministry to farmers and planters are misused simply because it is not possible to maintain the agriculture production for reasons well known to everybody here. Now the private sector is importing everything, and the prices are too high to afford.
The net effect of this and other hardships is that Iraqis are giving louder voice to a longing for the days of Saddam. Few things make people long for even oppressive rulers like empty stomachs, the sporadic availability of electricity, and fear of death on a daily basis:
"I was so happy when my salary was increased to around 300 dollars, but I now wish for the times when it was 30 dollars as it used to be before this occupation," engineer Kamil Fattah from the Ministry of Industry told IPS. "Inflation in the Iraqi market has made it impossible for us to eat decently while earlier we used to get every basic need for almost free of charge."
As President Reagan's Director of the NSA, Lieutenant General William Odom, told professional Bush apologist Hugh Hewitt in a recent interview (and wrote eloquently in wrote in a Washington Post op-ed entitled "Victory is Not an Option"), "It doesn’t matter how bad it gets, it’s not going to get better by us staying there." The United States simply does not have the manpower to subdue the violence in Iraq and meet the nation's humanitarian needs, and we need to come to terms with that fact.

The lives that have been lost cannot be reclaimed; the maimed cannot be made whole; and the worst crime of all would be to sacrifice more men and women to this lost cause. Withdrawing U.S. troops will undoubtedly result in additional violence, but it is violence that will take place either in a relatively short, sharp, shock, or in a long, slow boil that claims additional American lives. The former will at least allow NGO's to return relatively quickly to provide aid and help Iraq get back on its feet.

We as a nation are responsible for creating this no-win set of alternatives, and it is our fault that the consequences will be born by a country we have turned into a collection of victims. Nonetheless, the time for dithering and half measures is over; it is time to pick the less appalling of our options. It is time to begin withdrawing our armed forces from Iraq.

February 18, 2007

Intra-Muslim Conflict

One of the most important, but also least-understood, underpinnings of the turmoil that seems to be a permanent part of life in the Middle East is the tension between Sunni and Shi'a Islam. Below are a few articles that may be helpful in getting a grasp on some of the foundational issues.

First is a piece on the origins of the rift between Sunnis and Shi'a, as well as differences in the practices of the two versions of the Muslim faith:

Next, from, of all places, Fox News and Ralph Peters of RealClearPolitics.com, comes a clear and relevant analysis (aside from a snide remark about Natalie Maines) of the current state of intra-Muslim conflict and the various historical and religious forces underlying it:
For a more in-depth look at and what it may mean for the current situation in the Persian Gulf and the surrounding region, this is a worthwhile examination of the distribution of Sunnis and Shi'a populations:
Finally, for a more (fittingly) encyclopedic look at both Shi'a and Sunni versions of Islam, be sure to follow the links in the first paragraph, which go to full listings at Wikipedia.

Emjoy - I hope you find these helpful!


After posting the above, I came across a truly riveting documentary from Deborah Davies at Britain's independent Channel 4.

Death squads run rampant in Iraq's main cities, and in Baghdad, as many as 100 bodies a day are dumped on the streets. There are frequently signs of torture on the dead, but the killers have little to do with the either al-Qaeda or Sunni insurgents; they're Shi'a death squads. Davies investigates the links between these roving, organized murderers and high-ranking Shi'a politicians, and exposes how the militias these politicians control have systematically infiltrated and taken over entire police units and government ministeries.

It's a full television documentary program and clocks in at over 45 minutes, but it's well worth your time.

February 14, 2007

Someone Like All the People You Know

Tuesday saw the beginning of the long-awaited debate in the House of Representatives over President Bush's plan to commit an additional 21,500 combat troops and an as-yet-undetermined number of support personnel to the occupation of Iraq. While this debate will help the new Congressional Democratic leadership test the waters for further action - which both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jack Murtha have hinted is coming - it will not actually cut off funding or otherwise prevent the president from sending more Americans to shore up the greatest foreign policy fiasco in the history of the United States. Although in a best-case scenario it might represent the first step in extracting the U.S. from Iraq, in the meantime, while a feckless Capitol Hill engages in base political theater, more people are dying in George W. Bush's War.

Incredibly, the first congressional debate on sending troops to Iraq comes nearly four years into the conflict, a fact which can only truly be comprehended when it is understood how little impact the invasion and occupation have had on the majority of Americans. Even as the death toll for U.S. service members has passed 3,100 and the number of wounded, maimed and disabled has climbed into the tens of thousands, expectations for sacrifice have been kept appallingly low for anyone who doesn't have a family member or loved one in harm's way. As President Bush - in what can only be called the "Let them eat cake" of our time put it:
Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.
How have we found ourselves able to look the other way, to change the channel or to do whatever it is we do to maintain the "peace of mind" we are being asked to "sacrifice" every time some young kid or some reservist with children of his own is killed or disfigured on the other side of the world? While some - if not most - of the blame resides within ourselves, it is human nature to avoid conflict, and the Iraq War has been carefully managed by the administration to ensure that images of American youth cut down in its prime are kept from public view.

Reporters "embedded" with units are threatened with a loss of access - or worse - if they don't tow the official line; reading the names of those killed on Memorial Day is labeled "deeply offensive"; and even photographing the flag-draped coffins of the fallen is forbidden. The contrast between the "home front" and the real front is beyond striking, and it is only possible because the individuals - the human beings - who serve in our nation's armed forces are regarded simply as nameless, faceless "troops" or "soldiers" or "marines," rather than as people.

So as Congress dithers over non-binding resolutions that do nothing, take a moment to think about those who have died in Iraq as individuals and as people. Recognize each of the 3,128 killed to date as someone who had friends and teammates and a family; someone who had memories and hopes and aspirations; someone who had a favorite song, a movie he quoted, a book that shaped her life, a favorite color; someone like you and all the people you know.

For while we ask those who serve to sacrifice themselves, to ignore pain and to perform acts of bravery in the face of terrifying odds, every mother who loses a son or daughter wants her child home and safe more than she wants any medal or recognition from a commander in chief who equates a diminished peace of mind with the loss she has suffered. As one such mother said, "I wanted him here, and I didn't have him."

George W. Bush wants to send 21,500 more people into the jaws of a conflict that was lost before it was ever launched, and at no cost to himself or to those who report to him.


No more dead.

And no more wounded.

Wounded U.S. Marine returns home from Iraq to marry

February 7, 2007

If Not Now, When?

Lieutenant Ehren Watada joined the Army after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 because of what he termed "a desire to protect our country." Commissioned out of the Army's Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA, his first tour of duty was in Korea, where his superiors rated him "exemplary" and "among the best," and recommended him for early promotion. Watada returned to the United States in 2005 and reported to Fort Lewis to prepare for deployment to Iraq.

As part of that preparation, Watada - nearly a straight-A student in college - began researching the country in which he would soon be stationed. After reading books and articles about international law by scholars, governmental and non-governmental agencies; studying the history of Iraq; pouring over the evidence used to justify the U.S. invasion; and talking to returning veterans, he came to believe that the war was neither legal nor moral.

Based on his research, Watada arrived at the determination that the war in Iraq violates both the Constitution and the War Powers Act which limits the president's use of the armed forces in his role as Commander in Chief. He believes that the Iraq War is illegal under the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Nuremberg Principles, all of which "bar wars of aggression," and to each of which the United States is a signatory. Watada asserts that the war is based on misleading information and false premises (such as the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, and links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda) and contends that the occupation itself does not conform to the Army's own rules of conduct.

For all of these reasons, Lieutenant Watada concluded that assuming command responsibility in Iraq would make him personally liable for violations of international law, and that he could not legally or morally serve in that country. In early 2006, he submitted a request to resign his commission, noting that he was willing to deploy to Afghanistan - which he regarded as "an unambiguous war linked to the September 11th attacks" - but the Army would accept neither his resignation nor his reassignment request, and Watada in turn refused to accede to non-combat, desk duty in Iraq.

As a result, he has been charged with conduct unbecoming an officer for statements made in speeches and interviews; missing movement for refusing to deploy to Iraq with his unit on June 22nd; and contempt toward the commander in chief, President Bush. On Monday, the court martial of Ehren K. Watada began.

Unfortunately, for both Lieutenant Watada and the American citizenry, there is clearly no facility whatsoever in this country - or at least no willingness - to examine the merits of the position he has taken. As the Nuremberg Trials demonstrated, we place a significant burden on members of the armed services of all countries to obey international rules of war; "I was only following orders" is no excuse for the commission of atrocities or illegal acts, and the term "good German" has, in the wake of the second world war, become a derisive one. With that in mind, it is high time to recognize that, apart from our closest allies and a number of smaller nations seeking to curry favor, just about every other country in the world regards the United States' invasion of Iraq as a war of aggression, and as such, a violation of international law. Since there are no circumstances under which "preemptive war" - as the Bush Administration has termed our invasion - is anything but illicit, an examination of the war's legality seems more than merely appropriate, however faint such a hope may be.

While there has been an outpouring of support for Watada, as well as backlash both from supporters of the war and those under the misapprehension that he is dodging a combat assignment, it is almost certain that he will eventually be convicted in the court martial and serve as much as 4 years in a military prison. The judge has ruled that Watada's attorney, Eric Seitz, cannot debate the legality of the war to defend his client, and the scope of the proceedings will be limited to examining only whether Watada has violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Although it is practically undeniable that Watada is, in fact, in breach of the UCMJ, it must be stated in the clearest possible terms that, although the court's avoidance of the issue is understandable, unless the legality of the war can be challenged, his court martial is no more than a show trial.

Further, arguments that Lieutenant Watada violated American law by refusing to obey orders misunderstands the effect of international commitments on domestic jurisprudence. During the run-up to the invasion, the United Nations passed Resolution 1441 declaring that force could be used if Saddam refused re-admittance to weapons inspectors. Iraq's former leader, sensing he was cornered - and in direct contradiction to repeated statements made by President Bush - responded by letting the inspectors back across Iraq's border. Rather than accept Saddam's last-minute acquiescence however, the United States effectively circumvented the spirit of the U.N. resolution and invaded anyway, without support from that body, and with only the backing of what has been termed the "coalition of the willing," which, except for Great Britain, committed token allocations of personnel.

This is crucial, because Article VI of the United States Constitution states that "all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land." The United Nations Charter, which specifically prohibits wars of aggression - and to which the United States is a signatory - is a treaty. As such, it is the "supreme law of the land" and even if one asserts that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11 is both legal and covers the invasion of Iraq, it is difficult to make the case that the U.N. Charter wouldn't therefore supersede it.

Finally, while it can easily be argued that Watada has not been directly ordered to carry out crimes against humanity or even illegal acts, such a contention misses the point entirely. The issue is not that Lieutenant Watada's orders to deploy to Iraq are, in and of themselves, legal, any more than an embezzler's guilt or innocence should be determined by whether he pays taxes on money he has stolen. Simply expressed, even if the orders are legal, they are in service to something that is not. As such, they should rightly be regarded as aiding and abetting an illegal act.

At this point it is no longer surprising - although no less sad - that, despite conservative American claims to moral leadership, our rhetoric does not match our actions. What is to be commended, is that Ehren Watada - despite pronouncements that he is "betraying his unit" - is following not only the moral code he has been taught and which we preach to the world, but demonstrating how good men are placed in untenable positions by the neoconservative drive to transform the United States from a nation of laws into one of men.

In the end, it appears that Ehren Watada is doing the only thing he can do. As a serviceman, his avenues of redress are restricted to the system of military justice, and that system makes no allowance for examining the legality of wars in which we are engaged. If soldiers are responsible for acting justly, however, there must be a mechanism by which they can plead the full breadth of their cases, whether it be by petition to Congress, bringing suit in the courts, or some other method. Under our present system, members of the armed services are told to set aside their beliefs - no matter how well-founded in morality and law - until some yet-to-be-determined point in the future. That's simply not good enough, and it is imperative that we ask the question, "If not now, when?"