Politics of the Absurd.

August 26, 2007

Politics of the Absurd.

Sunday, August 26, 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, August 26, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: Senator John Warner has come forward with a proposal to begin a drawdown of American troops in Iraq. After September he wants the president to bring back 5,000 troops, obviously a small percentage of U.S. forces there. He’s proposing this for two reasons. One, to start to get a practical handle on what the security implications are of having less troops on the ground and, two, to send a message to the Maliki government that the United States presence there is contingent upon his bringing about a successful political reconciliation. Tell me your reaction to the Warner proposal.

Newman: In some sense, the whole thing is too absurd to even respond to. To say that continued American troop presence is contingent upon a political solution, a coming together of the different forces in Iraq, makes no sense. That was a realization that you should have had before we sent our first batch of troops into Iraq. Can we leverage a reconciliation of tribal and religious disputes which run so deep that they’re not transparently resolvable in the course of the next thousand years, no less in the course of the next thousand days? It’s like two cockroaches in primordial days having a fight with each other. One says to the other: I won’t come back until you turn into a grasshopper. What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not only mixing apples and oranges, it’s making such a mish-mash of conceptualization that there’s no possible response to it. It’s super absurd. I know that people like to say: Well, the issue of whether we should have gone into Iraq is passed. Maybe that was a mistake. But, now we have to deal with the present. That’s a ridiculous point, because not only does one go there, one continues to be there. We don’t have the capacity, and I don’t know if we should have the desire, to transform international conditions by troop deployment. Fighting a “war on terrorism” doesn’t change that fact.

Salit: I understand that the idea that Warner’s plan is a catalyst for reconciliation is absurd. But, is it absurd as a stage setter for a “face saving” withdrawal?

Newman: If you go someplace where you never should have gone and, at some point, you come to realize that – in its full historical depth – then what you do, it seems to me, is get out. How do you get out? Is it one at a time, three at a time, 5,000 at a time? That will get decided by the size and number of boats and planes that you have. That’s a totally technical question. Warner’s play is symbolic. He knows that. Everyone knows that.

Salit: I presume it’s what you say when you’re being cagey about whether Congress will have to act directly to compel troop withdrawals.

Newman: Yes. He doesn’t want to insult the president. But there’s no room for caginess about that. Withdrawing 5,000 troops is not going to make a difference. Everyone recognizes that. Is it a signal of some sort that Congress may have to act? Could be. But, that should be on the table. There should be a serious debate about that. The real debate is: can we as a country, or do we as a country, want to play this role now and/or indefinitely? If we decide that we don’t want to play this role, then what are the implications for Iraq? Well, we could leave. We’d have to say, We’re sorry, we’ve caused a great deal of trouble. We’re sorry, lives have been lost. Has that ever happened before? Yes, it’s happened before. Is it happening right now? Yes, in Iraq and other places in the world. But, nonetheless, you make moves of this kind, if that’s what’s called for.

Salit: Warner’s trying to tell a story. We did the surge to create an environment where the Maliki government could get its act together and effect a reconciliation. We did the surge. Our soldiers performed brilliantly. The space was created. But Maliki has failed to make that happen. Consequently, we’re now going to start to withdraw our troops and give further indication to Maliki and to the leaders of the different groups that we’re leaving and that the only predicate for our staying is your finding a way to work this thing out.

Newman: Maliki didn’t fail. Maliki couldn’t possibly have succeeded! The U.S. set up that story, so as to put Maliki in this position. We say Now you’ve got three weeks to succeed. Solve all the sectarian problems of Iraq. They’re only, after all, 400,000 years old or whatever. Washington sets the parameters and then it says ‘I’m sorry, Maliki. You’re failing.’ I have no idea how competent or incompetent Maliki is. It doesn’t make a difference. I think it’s understandable that he’s refusing to accept timetables. What he’s really saying is: These issues are not going to be solved in accordance with a timetable of Washington, DC, or one political party in Washington, DC, to show that it has in fact successfully brought democracy to Iraq and solved the issue of terrorism by doing so. It won’t happen that fast. Not even close. It’s conceptually so out of whack that none of it makes any sense.

Salit : Some of the guys on “Meet the Press,” journalists who have covered Iraq extensively, predicted that the Maliki government will collapse soon, then potentially you will get a succession of unstable governments, then…

Newman: It should be pointed out that the succession of unstable governments might play out over a very long time. It might not just be the next thousand days or the next thousand months. It might be the next thousand years.

Salit: Yes, and at least one of them said that the alternative to revolving door instability might be something like Al Sadr consolidating control over the country, who’s an anti-American, Iranian-allied cleric.

Newman: Or the alternative might be someone like Saddam Hussein.

Salit: Exactly. Now the idea of a “strongman” doesn’t seem so ridiculous. In some ways, the prognosis of these journalists is that there’s virtually nothing that the United States can do in this situation.

Newman: And there never was. Yes, they can send in troops. Yes, they can pacify Baghdad. But can they politically re-unify Iraq? Why would anyone think that?

Salit: Richard Engel of NBC News said the “blue finger” day, the national Iraqi election, was a disaster because it produced the Maliki government and all the things that follow from that. He argues that Iraq should immediately have a new set of elections. Why now? Do it while American troop presence is at its height because that’s the maximally positive environment to create a new coalition government. But, if that’s your condition for having an election, then it might follow from that that you need this level of troop support in order to maintain the results.

Newman: Anybody can have an election. Whether an election means anything is the question. They already had an election.

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: Lots of people came out to vote in Iraq. Everyone said: ‘Isn’t that fantastic.’ If we send over a million men with guns, we can probably have a peaceful election. But what does that mean?

Salit: It means if you have a million men with guns in the streets, you can have a peaceful election. That’s a high bar to meet every time you have an election.

Newman: Right.

Salit: What are your thoughts about the comparison Bush made between Iraq and Vietnam last week? He said ‘If we leave Iraq, the mass killing is going to happen the way it did in Vietnam after we left.’

Newman: If Bush answered essay questions in the third grade that way, he never would have made it out of public school. I think that “absurdity” is the dominant term for describing what’s going on with this right now.

Salit: Thomas Hicks on “Meet the Press” said he would define a key difference between the Vietnam experience and the Iraq experience as that in Vietnam, even with the killings in Cambodia after the U.S. departure, there was still somebody to hand the government over to that could effect stability for the long term. And that’s not true in Iraq.

Newman: The government wasn’t “handed over” to anybody in Vietnam. It was fought for by Ho Chi Minh, a very popular leader in the North and the South, and by the Vietnamese people. The new government established itself and unified the country after the U.S. was forced to withdraw.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.