All Alone at the Top?

January 14, 2007

All Alone at the Top?

January 14, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, January 14, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: Do you think George Bush is as alone as he looks?

Newman: That’s a good question. It’s hard to answer. I’ll tell you why. Because he’s certainly alone on Iraq and what he’s done with this war. But today’s “alone” is tomorrow’s “deal.”

Salit: Tomorrow’s deal?

Newman: I bet people on Capitol Hill, not to mention in the Middle East, are already thinking about what the next deal is that they can cut with him. But God knows, he’s alone on this thing. I don’t know who’s advising him, but he gets deeper and deeper in a hole. He can’t seem to get anything right because he basically keeps holding on to the same position.

Salit: It seems his only rationale with any traction is that if we leave now, the Iraqis won’t be able to run their own country.

Newman: To say that the people of Iraq are not doing enough to run their country right now and that if they don’t everyone else will grab it, is not the same thing as saying that they won’t do something if American troops are withdrawn. They will do something. Life will continue. The Middle East will continue. Are some scenarios more favorable, some less favorable? Yes. And that’s probably true of any world situation you could identify. But I don’t think that’s the least bit relevant to the argument of what we should be doing now, in the face of the current situation. That argument doesn’t lead to the consequence that they wouldn’t do something if the U.S. withdrew. That would have an impact, on them, on the Middle East, on the United States, on the world, on the price of oil in Montana.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: It’s certainly suspicious to argue that withdrawal would be a bad thing for the United States, by asserting that ‘Well, this will reinforce Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda will do this.’ Obviously, United States Intelligence are the least qualified people in the whole world to say what Al Qaeda’s going to do. Hello? Anybody remember that they missed 9/11? But, that’s not what you asked. The answer is: in one sense Bush is rather alone. In another sense, there’s a lot being said right now that’s as incoherent as he is. So I guess he’s less than alone.

Salit: Bush is criticized for what some are now calling the “cut and blame” strategy or the “blame and run” strategy – that the surge is designed to establish unequivocally, that America did all that was possible to achieve victory in Iraq, victory bringing stability, unification and democracy, and whatever didn’t work was the fault of others.

Newman: They don’t like democracy.

Salit: The Iraqis?

Newman: They’re engaged in a historically long term, violent war. A sectarian war. How are you going to bring things to a place where there’s either no tradition or no desire for that?

Salit: As a number of people said today, putting American troops into the middle of a civil war in the streets of Baghdad is basically putting them into a “meat grinder.”

Newman: It was also pointed out that we’ve put American troops into bigger civil wars before. We did it right here in the United States.

Salit: But, that was our civil war. This is somebody else’s civil war.

Newman: Well, yes. But, I could make the argument that it’s better for it to be somebody else’s civil war.

Salit: Because you can leave and go home at some point.

Newman: Right.

Salit: In our civil war, we couldn’t go home because we were already home. So, here’s the argument against the surge: The war’s been lost. It’s been lost militarily and it’s been lost politically, in terms of the base of popular support among the American people that you need to conduct a war.

Newman: The Bush administration lost the war several times.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: They lost when all the original assumptions turned out not to be the case. When all the things they had predicted would follow, didn’t follow.

Salit: We weren’t greeted as “liberators.”

Newman: The war was lost when it re-ignited or ignited – whatever language you want to use here – this sectarian war between the Sunnis and the Shias which the U.S. is now in the middle of.

Salit: So, the war’s been lost many times. And what is Bush doing? Bush is doing the thing that you do to establish that you took every possible shot to win.

Newman: I think it’s more that he’s trying to win one big battle before they exit. They can’t win the overall war because they’ve lost too many times already.

Salit: Stephen Hadley, the national security advisor, gave his narrative of what has happened. His argument was basically that we’d won the war until February 2006 when the Samarra Mosque was bombed, when the Sunni/Shia warfare broke out uncontrollably. But, up until that point, the U.S. was winning.

Newman: The Samarra Mosque attack is going to be a good answer for IQ tests in the United States.

Salit: True enough. It’s a little like asking: what was the cause of World War I? And the answer you give is the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Serbia. So Bush comes up with this new plan which, reportedly, even most of the military strategists don’t favor.

Newman: The only thing new about it is new Americans to kill. That’s what’s new about it.

Salit: Yes, you put more targets in front of the warring factions. As Martin Walker pointed out on “The McLaughlin Group,” the insurgent forces in Iraq aren’t stupid. If they come to believe that the situation in Baghdad is untenable because the U.S. presence is so overwhelming, then they’ll move to six other cities. In the course of two days, their forces will be redeployed and then the Iraqis are fighting on seven fronts, instead of just within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad. Then we’re into a wider war with more opportunities for the destruction of the country.

Newman: The American people have been told for all these years that the best kind of war for the U.S. to fight is an air war. And the worst kind of war for the U.S. to fight is an insurrection in a large urban area.

Salit: I guess those textbooks are going to be recalled for the foreseeable future.

Newman: No. They can just add the sentence: “We used to think…”

Salit: I thought the Lieberman/Hagel conflict was kind of interesting. But, let’s talk about Joe Lieberman for a second. Lieberman says: ‘My sense of history tells me that there are two exit strategies.’ You could mouth the words before he got them out of his mouth, it was so predictable. ‘One is called victory, the other is called defeat.’

Newman: And that’s true if you take the word “retreat” out of the dictionary, which has now been conveniently done. There are actually three exit strategies and there always have to be three, but not when George Bush and Joe Lieberman have re-written the popular dictionary.

Salit: So, Chuck Hagel, not Frederick Hegel…

Newman: Chuck is at least enough of a Hegelian to realize that there are three things you can do.

Salit: Just having the name makes you smarter! I thought Hagel reacted somewhat viscerally to Lieberman’s self-righteousness.

Newman: He was pretty angry. Lieberman is unbearable in that regard.

Salit: But then Hagel went on to say that this is an area of the world where we are over-engaged. We’ve never understood the dynamics here. We still don’t understand what’s going on here. And, basically, we’ve got to get out. Hagel of course, is a Republican. And he’s a popular Republican. Arguably, now that McCain has become more of a frontrunner/traditional/conservative/pro-Bush Republican, Hagel is now in this role of the maverick, truth-talking Republican. There is a lot of fractiousness inside the Republican Party. They not only lost control of Congress in the last election but they’re enormously concerned about their loss of credibility over the long term.

Newman: Particularly on foreign policy.

Salit: The Democrats have a political advantage at the moment.

Newman: A big advantage.

Salit: How are they doing with that, would you say?

Newman: They’re still staying with their old stuff too much, which is: no matter what’s going on, spin it as a Bush failure. They have to turn a corner on that and talk in more positive terms, which they’re beginning to do. They have to articulate their plan and how it could work. There was something of a turn in that direction today. I think that when they do it, it’s effective.

Salit: For example, Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut who’s also running for president now, says: ‘In his Wednesday night speech, after the president described the failure of his policy, he should have appointed a top level political envoy to go immediately to Iraq.’ Eleanor Clift said that what’s unfolding now is the biggest showdown between the White House and Congress since Vietnam.

Newman: Some people were even suggesting that it is bigger than Vietnam. And I’m inclined towards that side. I think Vietnam was much more controlled because it was conducted within the terrain of a political structure, a long term engagement between the communist East and the democratic West and so on. This is an unstable framework on multiple levels.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Washington hasn’t figured out what to do yet with Palestine and that’s a small territory. These other things are big, big, big countries with complex intra-continental and extra-continental relationships. This is one of the major oil powers of the world.

Salit: Right. So you think the confrontation that’s looming is more dramatic than Vietnam.

Newman: I don’t think it’s looming. I think it exists now. And it’s bigger right now than Vietnam ever got to be. That was a part of the Cold War. The heated up part of the Cold War. People lost their lives there. That’s tragic. But I don’t think it was ever threatening to the world.

Salit: No.

Newman: Because the Russians and the Americans didn’t want it to be threatening to the world. So, it wasn’t going to go that far. It’s not so clear that that’s the Arab strategy, on any side.

Salit: The moderates or the extremists.

Newman: Yes. I was thinking that they both gain from this level of instability. And probably a lot of other forces gain from this, too. Now, I don’t know that any of the players are looking to let that get entirely out of hand, in so far as they have a strange control of it by not having control. But I think the U.S. is the big loser at the moment.

Salit: One final question. Would you like to comment on Tony Blankley’s remark? ‘Hillary Clinton went to Baghdad this weekend and my prediction is she’s going to come back anti-war.’

Newman: Shouldn’t the feminists complain about that? I think the standard form of that joke used to be – so and so went to Atlantic City for the weekend and she came back pregnant.

Salit: I see. I missed that.

Newman: And I think that was self-conscious there, by Tony.

Salit: And then there’s Condoleezza on the hot seat this week. She’s been left holding the bag for the Administration. There is something kind of strangely American, I guess, about this war being bookended by Colin Powell defending the argument that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction in front of the United Nations and then four years later, Condoleezza Rice defending the Administration policy, which has been a complete failure and a disaster, in front of Congress. Those are sort of the two bookends of the Iraq experience. Two African American leaders being put in that position.

Newman: She really has been left holding the bag. I guess I feel a little badly for her as a fellow Stanford person. She is holding up, but barely.

Salit: On that note, thank you.