You Can Change Your Eggs…But.

December 17, 2006

You Can Change Your Eggs…But.

December 17, 2006

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, December 17, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: At one point in Tim Russert’s interview with Newt Gingrich, who was discussing U.S. options in Iraq, Russert asked him something like “What does real change mean?” Gingrich responded ‘Well, Tim, real change means real change.’ I thought it was a striking answer. Gingrich was saying there needs to be structural change, to use his term “real change” in what we’re doing in Iraq; if we don’t do that, then we’ve lost, and it’s over and we should basically get out. So, one question to talk about today is whether there can be a real change in what we’re doing there?

Newman: I thought for a moment you were raising a philosophical question, but you apparently decided not to.

Salit: What would the philosophical question be?

Newman: Is there any such thing as “real change”?

Salit: Okay.

Newman: And the answer is no. So, the other questions seem to me, from my strange and very philosophical vantage point, to be empty if they’re based on the assumption that there is real change. Change, at best, is something that takes place in the kitchen and it’s relativized to Am I going to eat the same old kind of eggs today or should I have a new kind. That’s what “real change” means philosophically.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: The “real change” you’re talking about has no particular meaning either in the short-term or the long-term. What makes sense to consider philosophically, because I’m not getting into tactics and policy issues, is something like the choice between progressive development and whatever you want to call the absence thereof – call it Nazi Germany if you like. And that’s not just an abstract philosophical point. What should be taken into account is whether what you’re doing in any way constitutes a step towards development, on a grand historical scale or on a more localized scale. I think the mere changing of the terms would help us reanalyze all kinds of things, including Iraq. It’s a better discussion than Has there been or can there be a change? Of course, there’s been change. And there will be more changes. But do those changes – past or future – influence positive development for Iraq or for the region? I don’t think there’s anybody who can really argue that they do. But, you didn’t ask me that. So, repeat what you did ask me and I’ll try to answer it.

Salit: Okay. Is change possible? I was asking that, not in a philosophical framework, but in a practical and pragmatic framework. Given where things have come to, can we introduce changes in our total approach to the situation?

Newman: Well, I’d have to say I still think it’s the wrong question. A human question would be Can you take what you currently have, and develop anything with it? I think that’s a different question from Can you effect change? Of course, you’re going to effect change. I mean, if you give Iraq to Iran, that would effect change.

Salit: Well, I think I understand your point, which obviously is not just a point about Iraq, it’s a point about everything.

Newman: The point is that we’re entering into a period in world history where those questions become the practical questions. I think that’s embedded in the historical moment.

Salit: I rather liked the Tom Friedman and David Brooks dialogue.

Newman: Yes, I thought it was relatively intelligent. But, moreover that’s what it was addressing. And I think that’s the right stuff to be addressing.

Salit: Alright. Friedman says what’s going on in Iraq and what’s going on in the Middle East is basically beyond the pale of civilized society. He’s not just talking about the killing, though that’s part of it, and he’s not just talking about the sectarian strife, though that’s part of it, but he said basically what you have is sectarian warfare that’s not based on anything other than tribalism, and by “anything” he means “principles” or “ideas” like, for example, the political and moral imperatives that drove the American Civil War 150 years ago. This is a civil war, Friedman says, that has no ideological coherency.

Newman: Most Muslims would say it has religious coherency.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And they believe in a religious world. So, he’s writing all of that off because it is insufficiently western and insufficiently rational. Those points are valid if that’s the framework you use. But the fight is all about the framework.

Salit: Exactly. So this is his narrative. We come in and we get rid of Saddam. The Shiites – newly empowered by the removal of Saddam – are ready to do business with the Sunnis, and there was a moment where you could have created something that arguably, is developmental. But, Friedman says, the Sunnis don’t go for it. They decide they’re not going for peace with the Shiites. They’re going to use this moment to basically blow the thing up, and that’s what they do. They come after the Shiites, they attack their mosques, and basically drive the Shiites to the point where the Shiites say Forget about a peace, forget about power sharing, we’re going to war and basically this is going to be a fight to the death. And essentially, screw the U.S., screw the foreign powers, that’s what we’re doing. So, let’s say you accept his narrative. And then you say Well, is there anything developmental that can be created out of that? I do not know the answer to that, obviously. Presumably no one does. But you say that’s the question that has to be raised. What I’m grappling with here is your saying that the question of what’s developmental, how you create development in the midst of all these different situations, are the practical questions.

Newman: Yes. So, if you take a look at some of the dominant ideas of the Bush Administration about this whole thing, it seems to me, that from a developmental point of view, they are blatantly contradictory. So for example, they appeared to be looking to produce a unity for Iraq. They were trying to put together a parliament, which includes all the different factions.

Salit: Right.

Newman: Well, in whose interest is achieving that unity in Iraq? If the premise is that development equals unity, then you view the whole situation one way. But many of the players and factions in Iraq, not to mention in the region, have other concerns. Unity is not a priority. Indeed, they don’t want unity in Iraq. They never wanted unity in Iraq.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, Bush bought in on a framework of “everybody really wants a stable democracy.” But it turns out everybody doesn’t.

Salit: And you add to that picture that what might have been the popular base for the unified and democratic society is leaving the country. There are a million Iraqi refugees who have gone to Jordan and another 600,000 who have gone to Egypt and other more stable countries in the region. The combination of whatever size that base was and the presence of the U.S. military was not sufficient to overcome other imperatives and other strategies.

Newman: And so America is fighting, essentially, the wrong war. No matter how much you spend, you can’t win it because it’s not what the war is really about. We’ve spent a lot of money on propaganda both here and abroad to spin that this war is about democracy, but this war is not about democracy. This war is about religion. This war is about world-view. The war is about ancient tribal rivalries. But it’s not about democracy.

Salit: Going back to Newt Gingrich. He says he’s not running for president yet, but he wants to put ideas into the mix, and I think he was very, very effective. He asserted that one of the problems the U.S. has in Iraq is that we have no instruments of national power other than the military. He said what you really want to be able to do in Iraq is go in and set up some kind of conservation corps type model where you create public works jobs for the 60% of Iraqi young adult males who are out of work and who are being recruited by or have already been recruited by one or another militia or faction. He argues that you basically go in and present another infrastructure and another option which is about rebuilding the country and you pay people and – this is your term, not his – that’s a developmental alternative.

Newman: I would say so.

Salit: And it not only has positive social and economic consequences, but it also would have positive geopolitical consequences because it has the U.S. acting as a real and progressive counterweight. That’s a compelling argument and a compelling alternative approach.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: And presumably Gingrich’s point is that this would be a very sensible intervention – assuming you could handle the logistics of how to do that – but there’s no place for it in American discourse as it’s been organized by the Bush White House and by Congress and by the political parties.

Newman: Not to mention that the people in power in the United States who’ve led the way in this war, have nothing but negative attitudes towards that kind of approach, whether it’s the 1930s in America or 2006 in Iraq and the Middle East. The people currently in power are basically about making big deals and sending in the big guns. The Democrats, having sold out everything they stood for, still have a history of advocating and running programs that give money to poor people. But will they draw on that history? We’ll have to see.

Salit: Before we wrap, give me your thoughts about Gingrich.

Newman: I think he’s believable when he says that he wants to set the agenda. Would he turn down a draft to run? Obviously not. He does want to set an agenda, and he’s got a brain. He recognizes that his time to be president is long passed. So, he’ll be a player, and something of an intellectual player, and he’s good.

Salit: He sure is.