The Politics of Certitude.

September 9, 2007

The Politics of Certitude.

Sunday, September 9, 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, September 9, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: General Petraeus came back from Iraq to testify before Congress and give his report on the status of the surge. As has been discussed, the original purpose of the surge was to tamp down the sectarian violence in Baghdad to create an environment where a political reconciliation could occur. By all accounts, the Petraeus report is going to detail the ways in which sectarian violence has been tamped down. But, the political reconciliation that was the aim of the surge is not materializing. On the one hand, the Administration is presumably going to make the case off of Petraeus’ report that they should maintain the U.S. presence at “surge” levels and pursue the political objectives. The critics are going to say that it’s an example of the extent to which the strategy for a national political reconciliation is unobtainable. Is the public debate, in your view, moving forward?

Newman: There is a process moving forward and that’s true almost by definition. It’s certainly producing more people who are psychoanalyzing Bush. But nobody will say, it seems to me, what it is that underlies Bush’s – you pick the word – stupidity, or stubbornness, or commitment. You can call it by different names. But there’s an underlying belief that supports his posture – and it’s not unique to George Bush. George Bush gives expression to it in a particular way because he’s president of the United States. What’s the belief? That America must be right. Now, if you raise this, the first thing people are going to say is: Are you suggesting that America could be wrong ? And then they’ll wave a flag at you. I consider myself to be as patriotic as anybody. I’m a proud American. But if you come at this situation from the vantage point that America must be right, not even from the vantage point that America is right, but that it must be right, you close yourself off from the complexity of, not only the situation in Iraq, but the situation in the world. That’s the overriding and underriding presumption of George Bush. You don’t even have to agree with him. But you do have to adhere to that frame of reference for discussion. And, that’s not simply an abstraction. If you look at the actual situation in Iraq – I’m not even saying this critically – the United States of America has an enormous interest in resolving the situation because of oil, because of national security, because of the geo-political dynamics in the region. Now, can we answer those challenges with 150,000 troops and a timetable? Well, it seems we can’t. It’s absurd to put that on a timetable. After all this time, there’s still an unwillingness to have honest discussions of this dilemma.

Salit: And you’re saying that’s because of the fundamental belief structure which has as its foundation that America must turn out to be right.

Newman: Yes. Look, someone might say Well, that’s fine and good to talk about belief structures and all that, but we have to make decisions. That’s the very point I’m making. We have to make decisions in the context of recognizing that there’s a great deal that we don’t know. I don’t mean not knowing whether there are weapons of mass destruction, but rather the history of the Middle East, the relationship between the Sunnis and the Shia and the Kurds and the culture of those divisions, not to mention the history of failed empires. No one wants to cop to that level of not knowing, it seems to me. And, in failing to do so, it makes it very difficult to make the tactical decisions which do have to be made. The White House might be looking for tactical decisions which are going to provide answers to some of those historical questions but they haven’t found any. Someone might say, Well then, what is to be done? Well, what is always to be done? You have to make your decisions based on a recognition that history honors no timetable. Policy makers don’t want to face up to that. They sit in positions of authority. They have all the obvious psychological, social, political conflicts. That’s the real strategic essence of the quagmire, from my point of view. Everything else is what they say on TV.

Salit: It’s not just that we have 150,000 troops and the most incredible firepower in the world in Iraq to back up the American view, although that’s awesome, no doubt about that. But there are certain American ideas about democracy, reconciliation, political systems of accommodation and so forth that everyone expected would take root, historically speaking, in about a second and half in a part of the world that has a very, very different tradition. On the one hand, I find the arrogance of the American position just that, arrogant. But there’s also another side of it that is peculiarly parochial. So, when you said history honors no timetable, I think that’s a really important point. Part of what Bush can’t accept is that there’s something in the world that’s more intractable than American power. And it’s occurring in this – pardon the politically incorrect expression – Godforsaken country in the Middle East, which has the unfortunate accident of being one of the most oil rich regions in the world. George Bush isn’t able to trump that.

Newman: Bush is not the only one who holds to this view, after all. I’m the last person in the world who wants to defend George Bush, but he’s not alone in the view that America must be right. It’s easily shared by substantial numbers of Americans, enough numbers to have elected him president for two terms.

Salit: That’s certainly true.

Newman: You suggest we call it “arrogance.” Can “arrogance” – which has been displayed by virtually every single political leader in the known history of the world – really be called arrogance? Indeed Bush, or at least Bush’s friends, could argue that’s what he endorsed by taking the oath of office to become president of the United States. That’s built into the structure. Can one do something better with that than what he’s done? I think great presidents have. I don’t think he’s a great president. He’s not the worst president we ever had, but I don’t think he’s from the crème de la crème. And the times are different, the circumstances are different. I don’t want to get into that it’s his unique personality. I don’t think it is.

Salit: I think you’re definitely right there.

Newman: To me, the issue is not the arrogance of power. That’s there, to be sure. But rather than speaking of it that way, I prefer seeing it as the certitude of power. We are obliged to defend our country. That is valid and legitimate. But, you have to defend the country in such a way that it’s compatible with your total lack of control of history. History is history. It doesn’t simply bow its head in the face of American power, no matter how much power there is.

Salit: I laughed when Chris Matthews had that discussion about whether George Bush would “come out alright in history.” The reason I laughed was the framing of the issue was so strange to me. “Come out alright in history” almost reduces it to what some writer is going to say about him in 2065 in some 4 th grade social studies textbook.

Newman: Right, right.

Salit: An independent commission did a study of the security forces in Iraq, which painted a somewhat grim picture, not just of the security situation overall, but the state of the Iraqi National Police force. Not surprisingly, many of the sectarian and tribal and other tensions are playing out there. General James Jones, who headed the commission, talked about the size of the American footprint in Iraq, which he described as “massive” – Americans have a “massive footprint” – and how much of a problem that is. One thing I was struck by in the report was the extent to which we’re running the country. That might be my own version of naiveté. I’ve never lived through an occupation. I’ve never seen an occupation first hand. But I thought the report expressed the extent to which our troops there are so involved in the day-to-day and hour-to-hour running of the country. It made me feel, again, how wrong-headed the strategy is and what a difficult position our troops are in. They’re being called upon to run a country that doesn’t want us there. The Iraqis might have wanted us to help them get rid of Saddam. They might have wanted us to tear down the Baath Party. I’m sure many people did. But now, we’re running their country. What a terrible position for our troops to be in. It’s so mixed up.

Newman: It’s certainly that. I have been in a country that the United States military was occupying. It was a long time ago, in Korea. The South Koreans, in general, wanted the U.S. to be there as a protector against the continuous threat from North Korea which, in some ways, is still there. I wasn’t very enlightened or informed at the time. I was a 19-year-old kid from the Bronx. But I did have some sense of what was going on. And, yes, you’re right. The extent to which a relatively small number of U.S. troops ran the country was somewhat shocking. I don’t want to pass myself off as an expert on these situations because I was stationed in Korea for 16 months, more than 50 years ago. That said, here’s something that I did see.

There were negotiations going on coming out of the Panmunjom talks where a team was working on plans to resolve the Korean conflict. It was called the Neutral Nations Inspection Team and it included members of Communist bloc and of the Western countries, so-called. The president of South Korea at the time – his name was Syngman Rhee – was fanatically opposed to allowing any of the Communist bloc countries to participate in the Neutral Nations Inspection Team. The unit that I was with, which was part of the 24 th Infantry Division, was assigned to protect the Communist bloc members of the Neutral Nations Inspection Team. At one point in this process, we were stationed at the Hialeah Compound, in a section of Pusan,* a city at the feet of a low mountain range, with the Communist bloc members of the Neutral Nations Inspection Team. Rhee was our ally, but the U.S. was de facto running the country, deciding how things should go, which didn’t sit well with Rhee, particularly when it came to the inclusion of the Communist bloc in the post-conflict negotiations. So, at one point, Rhee decided to assert his power and he deployed a million Republic of Korea Army troops in the low mountains around the Hialeah Compound.

Salit: That must have been terrifying.

Newman : Essentially his statement was Those members of the Communist bloc countries may be targeted at any point that I choose and I don’t care if that means I have to kill the Americans who are protecting them. And he had one million ROK army troops backing him up. I’m not telling this story just to tell war stories, but to make the point that those on the receiving end of an occupation have conflicted feelings about and relationships to their occupiers.

The Iraq situation is different. It seems to be not only a quagmire on the ground, but Iraq seems to me to be caught up in a conceptual quagmire. So, you listen to these talk shows and you say “Well, that seems like a fairly intelligent statement. That seems like an intelligent statement and so does that.” But they all appear to contradict each other. There’s something that you can’t get your hands on. And I think it’s because there is a deep level of assumptions that are never brought to the surface which creates a kind of pervasive dishonesty, which is another level of quagmire in addition to the practical quagmire on the ground. They’re related, certainly. But, it’s hard to keep listening, it’s hard to keep listening.

Salit: Thank you, Fred.
* Now known as Busan.