Archive Page 3

Bhutto Dead

Although reports are still contradictory and extremely sketchy, the news that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated looks like it is correct. News sources have few details and Blogs are just breaking it. Blogger Abu Muqawama has the first post I can find that has a reasonably complete narrative:

Hospital sources are confirming Benazir Bhutto has, in fact, been killed in a massive suicide attack on a political rally. Most web sites are still saying she was wounded.

Abu Muqawama has some harsh things to say about Bhutto and I have posted positively about her just after the first assassination attempt on her return from exile. From what I have read since my post I’d have to concede that his criticisms are well founded. At the same time she has a strong following in Pakistan and her constituents will certainly be outraged at her deliberate killing by a suicide bomber.

we all know she was eloquent, went to Harvard and Oxford and was a darling of the English-language media. But she was arguably the most corrupt woman in the history of South Asia. She was removed from office not once but twice on corruption charges. And ruthless? She killed her own brother in 1996.

I have certainly read that she is not viewed in the same way within Pakistan as she is in Western liberal circles so it is unclear to me if her death will turn Pakistanis, other than her immediate supporters, against the religious extremists. I had believed or hoped that her triumphal return heralded a turning against extremism when I first posted on it and I was impressed by her speech in reaction to the event. Since then I have been forced to recognize the all too familiar squabbling among Pakistan’s political elite. That said, I have to mourn her loss as a person of great ability that clearly had the capacity to lead her country in an extremely difficult time. Despite the corruption and other serious charges against her she may have, in maturity, provided her country with positive leadership. She will never have that opportunity now. I think this kind of fanaticism will continue in the Muslim world until it inspires an absolutly ruthless reaction against it. It is way too early to tell if Bhutto’s death will be received in this way by the majority of her fellow Pakistanis.


Jules Crittenden says here:

I have a very bad feeling about all of this. The potential for critically destabilizing a flank that was difficult enough as it was, is huge.

Exactly. While it is not exactly unclear who probably killed her, there is speculation that elements within the Pakistani security establishment may have been involved. The impact on the elections is unknown – martial law again? postponement? – and evidently her supporters at the hospital chanted “Dog, Musharref, Dog” in response to her death. If I were a jihadi I’d like that outcome just fine.

And here is what reporter Adil Najam of All Things Pakistan who knew her personally says:

At a human level this is a tragedy like no other. Only a few days ago I was mentioning to someone that the single most tragic person in all of Pakistan – maybe all the world – is Nusrat Bhutto. Benazir’s mother. Think about it. Her husband, killed. One son poisoned. Another son assassinated. One daughter dead possibly of drug overdose. Another daughter rises to be Prime Minister twice, but jailed, exiled, and finally gunned down.

The Semaphore


A semaphore tower – courtesy Wikipedia

Riepl’s Law, put forward by the German newspaperman Wolfgang Riepl in 1913, states that when new media emerge old ones don’t simply go away, they adapt and change. A contemporary German media CEO, Mattais Dorphner put it in contemporary terms this way here:

… media do not replace existing media. Media progress is cumulative, not substitutive. New media are constantly added, but the old ones remain. This law has yet to be disproved. Books have not replaced storytelling. Newspapers have not replaced books; radio has not replaced newspapers; and television has not replaced radio. It follows that the Internet will not replace television or newspapers.

In an apparent contradiction to Riepl’s law, Kris De Decker of Low-tech Magazine reminds us here (Hat tip Instapundit ) of the unarguably obsolete visual telegraph or semaphore system developed by Claude Chappe in France at the end of the 18th century.


Every tower had a telegrapher, looking through the telescope at the previous tower in the chain. If the semaphore on that tower was put into a certain position, the telegrapher copied that symbol on his own tower. Next he used the telescope to look at the succeeding tower in the chain, to control if the next telegrapher had copied the symbol correctly. In this way, messages were signed through symbol by symbol from tower to tower. The semaphore was operated by two levers. A telegrapher could reach a speed of 1 to 3 symbols per minute…..The transmission of 1 symbol from Paris to Lille could happen in ten minutes, which comes down to a speed of 1,380 kilometres an hour.

But Mr Dorphner has an answer:

CDs really did replace old vinyl records; and mp3 technology is currently in the process of replacing CDs faster than anyone suspected. The same applies for DVD and video. And this is where things get interesting, for neither the CD nor the DVD nor the mp3 are really new media, they are merely improved technologies. The product itself, the creative medium of music or film, has not been changed by this new transfer medium. Which is why these examples, too, actually confirm Riepl’s Law.

So in Dorphner’s view transfer media are different from what he argues are basic or fundamental media. Relatively simple changes in technology as distinct from truly new media. McLuhan would argue that the differences in form are always critical and usually glossed over because we focus on content. I’m not sure if the distinction always holds, but I think it is useful and applies to the problem raised by the semaphore being quickly and completely replaced by the electric telegraph. Looking at the subsequent history of the electric telegraph Kris De Decker provides further insight into Dophner’s use of the idea of a transfer medium:

Not the telephone, nor the railroads, nor radio or television made the telegraph obsolete. The technology only died with the arrival of the fax and the computer networks in the second half of the 20th century. Also in rail-traffic and shipping optical telegraphy was replaced by electronic variants, but in shipping the technology is still used in emergency situations (by means of flags or lamps).

So what is the underlying medium? Kris De Decker argues that it is coded communication:

The optical as well as the electrical telegraph are both in essence the same technology as the Internet and e-mail. All these means of communication make use of code language and intermediate stations to transmit information across large distances; the optical telegraph uses visual signs, the electrical telegraph dots and dashes, the Internet ones and zeroes. Plumes of smoke and fire signals are also telegraphic systems – in combination with a telescope they would be as efficient as an optical telegraph.

An email making its way from server to server or a fax from machine to machine is technologically similar to a smoke signal making its way from hilltop to hilltop or a semaphore message from tower to tower. All are nodal networks transferring coded messages. But this technological similarity is not sufficient to explain why the telegraph finally became obsolete. Something is missing. What was fatal to the telegraph was the increased bandwidth and accessibility of fax machines and computer networks. More information can be transferred more conveniently than with the telegraph.

At some point I believe we have to think of such changes as changes in media too. The increased bandwidth of computer networks is so much greater that the data is no longer a highly constricted coded message but something more akin to a letter as the name
‘electronic mail’ asserts. So I think it is proper to say that these new media are functioning as transfer media only for the very restricted communications once transferred by the telegraph and its precursors. To the extent they are creating whole new worlds of human communication such as social media – to cite a single example – they are much more than transfer media.

Crossposted at Newmedaitheory.

The Boy With the Barrow

In the fifties 5% of America’s population produced it’s food. The Soviet Union 50%, China 90%. Now the US does it with one half of 1% – farming, once ubiquitous, is now rare. Worldwide farmers are, for the first time in 5000 years, a minority. See here and here. We still have to eat, but nostalgia for a bygone era strongly appeals to, well…..those we used to call ‘city folks’…..who, unlike the ‘boy with the barrow’(ie moi) , are not entirely sure what it means to ‘have the whole job in front of them.’ Hence, I think, the popularity of Ree who blogs at Confessions of a Pioneer Woman. She’s a city gal who met and married a rancher and obviously is seriously enjoying herself and the country life as well as country cooking, horses, calves and all that other good stuff. What I think has made her site popular however is the earthy frankness with which she refers to agricultural realities. Calf nuts feature prominently on her site and in the video linked below – and no they are not some kind of pelletized stock feed, they’re nuts….testicles.

And for me that is what is different from the fifties. Back then, the women just were not so frank about such matters. We were in the milk business, not the beef business so we didn’t have ‘calf nuts’ everywhere. But I know this for sure – my mother wouldn’t have referred to them that way. She was no prude and accepted the bucolic realities that surrounded us with a combination of frankness and reserve typical of the times. She indulged no frivolities trying to pretty up the toilet – like some of her urban sisters – and she could face the task of gutting a dozen chickens with a determination I still find awesome. My mother was a well educated and sophisticated woman of her day and so is Pioneer Woman, and what I am saying is that the times have changed and so has the style with which a country woman can present herself to the world. Here is a description of her recent encounter with CNN. (Note: Marlborough Man is her husband.)
“Oh, Lawsie Mercy, I’m Crawling in a Hole.
*Disclaimer: Marlboro Man is forcing me to write this post. And if you think I’m using the term “force” casually, YOU try telling him no sometime. It’s a physical impossibility.

Tomorrow, for probably a couple of minutes at most, I’ll be appearing on a show on CNN Headline News called “News to Me.” A few weeks ago, the producer of the show emailed me (he’d read my site and had likely just been bowled over by something really embarrassing I’d written, or perhaps a nice, impressive belch) and asked if I’d agree to be interviewed on their show about citizen journalism. I said yes and immediately regretted it because I’m very squeamish about appearing in front of any camera at any time. I get a hive on my neck. Not hives, just a hive, but it’s a hive nonetheless. And when I’m in front of the camera, I lose all control. Of my bladder. And my senses.”
Nope, that’s not my mom, but damn – she’s funny. Here she is in person on CNN. Enjoy and Merry Christmas everyone.

Gratuitous Snark

Extreme Mortman nails the Washington Post for a bit of MSM gratuitous snark toward bloggers which seems to me to demonstrates the self wounding cluenessness of the established media in understanding the Titanic nature of their predicament or even the basic power of bloggers to widen the hole in their bow.

The mainstream media keeps raising the bar on what bloggers have to achieve before they can be taken seriously as a political force. Voter turnout, candidate election, fundraising — the standards keep getting higher and higher. We thought we had seen every skeptical measurement, every goal line movement … until we read Tim Craig’s Virginia political round-up in the Washington Post this morning:

“Liberal bloggers may have helped Webb win the Democratic nomination for Senate last year, but they have yet to prove they can help a Virginia candidate win a general election in a district in which a majority of voters are more used to voting Republican than Democratic.”

One of his commenters Gullyborg who blogs at Resistance is Futile sums it up nicely:

It’s the same thing the media does with everybody. First you need to topple Saddam. Then you need to catch him personally. Then you need a new constitution. Then you need elections. Then you need… Thirty years from now… they will STILL be …saying “well, not everyone in Iraq can play a musical instrument yet…”

As we can see from the above two examples the side of politics isn’t the issue – it is a matter of form, not content. The MSM have developed the habit of patronizing their readers by pretending to have a superior view of issues even when they have nothing of value to say.

I found a corker of an example in a computer magazine – of all places – yesterday and I’ve been ‘mad as hell’ ever since. APC (Australian Personal Computing), the only magazines I still buy because it covers tech stories I have missed and Australian specific issues had a story on the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative. The main story is about Joel Stanley, a young Aussie who won a contest to join the OLPC design team at MIT. It is entirely appropriate that an Australian publication should feature outstanding local talent. The gratuitous snark comes in a two column sidebar headed

Half a laptop per child – OLPC project gets off to a shaky start.

Because it isn’t available on line I’ll just say the article bashes the OLPC unrelentingly for the first two thirds of the copy and then grudgingly admits for a single paragraph it might succeed because it has the best technology and rounds out the piece with a neutral summary of the specs. Here is a sample:

The ideals were noble. but in practice things haven’t happened…The gaudily coloured OLPC – originally lined up as the $100 PC – has seen its price double in its two years of development, which has surely soured many potential purchasers of the system. Even if you were interested in getting one for yourself, the XO’s two weeks of public sales – sold under a charitable ‘Give one, Get one’ banner – will have ended by the time you read this.

Pfui! Where to begin? First, the start is just too new to be judged shaky. Things have happened – like it is actually in production. Then the fall of the US dollar has contributed significantly to the price rise. Even Aussie conspiracy theorists know that such things are controlled by a cabal of NY bankers, not the knuckleheads at MIT. Give snark, get snark. The similar Asus eee PC has doubled in price too (touted at $200, selling for $400) and the OLPC has expensive features like a screen that swivels to convert it into a tablet. Me, I give ‘em a big Aussie thumbs up and say good onya mate to the geeks at MIT. And I did get one under the ‘Give one, Get one’ offer which was open only to US and Canadian residents by having my sister in the US order it for my grandkids. Aussies just didn’t get this opportunity. Not only did Mr Snarky got his facts wrong he missed a golden opportunity to winge about the Yanks excluding the Aussies. There, now I feel better.

The Centre is Holding

The centre in Iraq has always been the Shiite majority and its decisive role has been both under estimated and under reported. The Kurds did exactly what the Bush administration hoped all of Iraq would do – get on with peaceful self government and economic activity. The Sunnis chose insurgency and the resulting violence has filled the media and our awareness to an extent that has obscured the complex – and I believe ultimately decisive – political struggle going on within Iraq’s Shiite majority. The Shiites have had a mixed, even ambivalent, reaction to the war which should come as no surprise after their abandonment in 1991 to Saddam’s slaughter after they were encouraged to revolt. It has remained unclear to what extent the Iraq Shia are Arab nationalists and therefore Arabs and Iraqis first and unwilling to be dominated by Persian Iran. Despite sparse information it has been clear all along that there has been a moderate Shiite centre focused on the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Sistani that has held its ground against the radical Sadr. An overview of the situation in Iraq that gives Shiite political development its proper place in the overall picture is vanishingly rare. Reuel Marc Gerecht‘s Why the Worst Is Probably Over in Iraq is the first piece I have read that gives an idea of where Iraq’s majority may go if the Sunni insurgency is permanently defeated. It is about 6 pages long I strongly recommend reading the whole thing as an antidote to the the usual coverage we receive. Although more conservative than O’Hanaon and Polack of the Brookings institution he, like them, is primarily interested in dispassionately analyzing the situation rather than seeing it through the lens of a particular ideology. His description of the difficulties the Shia center have been through spares no one:

The Iraqi clerical establishment–which is the mainstay supporting peaceful political relations among the Shia, the democratic government in Baghdad, and the American troop presence in the country–has held under enormous pressure from within and without. The year 2006 was awful for the Iraqi Shia: the demolition of the shrine at Samarra; a ferocious onslaught of Sunni suicide bombers that seemed to be collapsing Shiite civilian life in the capital; the merciless Battle of Baghdad, which threatened to empower the most radical among the Shia; a noticeable Iranian push to gain influence amid the turmoil; the utter failure of Abizaid and Casey to deploy a counterinsurgency strategy against the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda; the accompanying widespread, destabilizing fear that the Americans were withdrawing; and the growth of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in the south of the country as the British position completely collapsed in Basra–all combined to threaten the cohesion of the Shiite community.

Nor is his assessment simplistic or overly optimistic:

But the community did not crack. Although it is very difficult to gauge the grassroots health of Iraq’s clerical Shiite establishment and the mosques and religious schools allied with Najaf throughout the country (Western reporting on this has never been good, and the awful violence of 2005-2007 essentially shut down the occasional reporting on Najaf and its networks), the hawza under Sistani seems to be regaining strength. According to Iraqis affiliated with Sistani, religious students–the talaba–are returning to Najaf in greater numbers, and revenue flows within Iraq and from the larger Shiite world are increasing again and stabilizing.

The Shia centre has been the ground on which the figure of Iraqi violence has monopolized our attention. It only briefly flickered across our TV screens when the voters displayed their purple fingers and broad grins. To the extent it has been a TV war in the West, the Shia centre has seemed only a passing phantom of little importance. On the ground, once the tyrant who was holding Iraq’s Shiites in bondage was removed the outcome of the war has primarily depended on its majority. Gerecht, who has extensively studied Iran and the role of the Clergy in Shiite politics, gives us this striking conclusion so different from the usual fare:

In Iraq, the Shiite clergy, a more conservative institution than its Iranian counterpart, has thrown itself solidly behind the democratic experiment, and it has worked hard to ensure that the Shiite community does not collapse into self-destructive internecine conflict.And unless the Sunnis do something extremely stupid—like declare war on the Shia—it now seems unlikely that this consensus could be broken by any armed Shiite force. (If the Shia are forced to begin the conquest of western Iraq, then one could imagine a Shiite general arising who would not owe his political strength to the Shiite center backed by the hawza.)Although this progress might be reversed if the Americans again repeat the mistakes of premature “Iraqification” and rapidly drew down their forces, the surge has likely made lasting success the more probable scenario. It is by no means clear that the Bush administration understands the dynamic working here—it is the collapse of Sunni hubris, not the triumph of Sunni-Shiite “reconciliation,” that is the key to long-term success. But it appears now that Iraqis grasp this reality, and, in the end, that is what matters.

Visual Explorations

I was gossiping with my friend Griselda about a couple of very successful Australian businessmen we know for whom Communism/socialism represents good and America evil. The overwhelming problem they see in the world is America and believe that it must be stopped without for a moment recognizing any connection to their own genuine skill in the black arts of capitalism. The quality of their belief is so passionate that it sometimes extends to seeing Ahmadinejad and Chavez as the good guys. The former is the President of the country that regularly refers to the US as the Great Satan and the latter actually called Bush the devil in this speech before the UN.

“And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil came here. Right here.” [crosses himself] “And it smells of sulfur still today.”

Griselda and I both see this phenomena as a kind secular faith. She is fond of quoting Chesterton “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” The part about believing in nothing is important. Unless one is brought up, like a Theravada Buddhist, to believe in ‘the void’ it is difficult to stop thinking in terms of one system of symbols, in particular those for good and evil, without replacing it with another one. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the early Christians appropriated the dates of many Pagan festivals and built churches on Pagan sacred sites. Today I think modern secular people often replace Christian symbols and beliefs with overtly or unconsciously Marxist symbols and beliefs. A very obvious such segue in the conceptual realm is millennialism – the remarkable resemblance between the Christian belief in the ‘end times’ and the Marxist belief in the stateless paradise at ‘the end of history. Even neo-conservatives hailed the fall of communism and the globalization of capitalism as the ‘end of history’ until our Muslim friends disabused them of the notion. Likewise, our Green friends would get a lot further with me if they lightened up on the apocalyptic fear. But I digress.

In this post I want to show how this confounding of old and new beliefs is more obvious – more florid one might say – in the realm of visual symbols than in the arena of verbally expressed ideas. Chavez’s verbal thrust is extraordinary – visual sallies not so much. Google images is a great tool for exploring the visual. I look not only at the specific images but also at the number and character of them. For example, when you put Bush into Google images the ratio of negative to positive pictures is overwhelming. Outside of a couple of official portraits almost all are negative. I’m not claiming this result is manipulated – although it may be in obscure geeky ways I am not aware of. What I think is going on is that intense negative sentiment is producing large numbers of images, while those that support him are not equally motivated. If you give Hillary Clinton a go you will see she does a little better but cops a lot of visual flack too.

Leaving Chesterton’s argument for God aside, I think it is fair to say that, as we have become less religious, it is only natural that we begin to use secular symbols for good and evil. What is just beneath the surface is that the modern replacement often bears a striking resemblance to the old system of symbols. We have this juxtaposition of the iconic photo of Che with Christ.


The association is strong enough that there is even an example where the images of the two merged:


Then there is the portrayal of Bush as the Devil:

The second image is from Germany where anti Bush sentiment is particularly strong. Below is a full dress Bushdevil complete with Biblical quote from a well done anti Bush site that visually explores the whole gamut of anti Bush memes from Bush Hitler to Bush Chimp.


A variant I particularly like is the mock conspiracy theory ploy showing Bush giving the left handed devil’s horns sign. I presume these shots are either accidental moments caught by the camera or photoshopped.


Even his daughter Jenna gets in on the act while her granddad, Bush 41, seems to escape this fate – evidently it is just Dubya who is the ‘bad seed’.


Bluntly, Che was not the potential savior of mankind, but a charismatic Stalinist quite prepared to execute his political enemies. Nor is Bush the avatar of evil but a controversial American president who’s place in history is yet to be determined. In their day, The Romans solemnly made gods of their emperors, then routinely slaughtered them, threw down their statues and declared their divinity null and void. Projecting heaven and hell on our leaders is good sport, but as the Romans discovered a dangerous one.

Wee Whoppers

Alan Sullivan, the Seablogger, who lived on a boat for many years, happens to know rather a lot about the weather. He points out a small error in a BBC news story and speculates how such errors arise and accumulate in a post entitled Little Falsehoods. Here is the quote from the BBC:

It was only the 10th named storm to develop after the official end of the Atlantic hurricane season since records began in 1851.

And here is Alan’s analysis:

Storms were recorded long before 1851, however they were not named until 1951. This mistake makes it sound as though post-season storms are much rarer, the present one more freakish, and therefore more likely to have been caused by global warming. I do not believe there was any intent to deceive. The problem is more subtle. If you passionately believe a thesis — whether or not it is true — you are likely to make mistakes in its favor. Thus is a “consensus” formed, one falsehood at a time.

Despite being an academic directly concerned with the study of media since the 60s I did not fully appreciate the extent to which the traditional industrial age media – newspapers, radio, TV – created mass opinion until after the rise of the Internet. I am reminded of McLuhan’s argument that we remain unaware of how much we are hypnotized by a particular media environment until a new one emerges and gives us some perspective on the older forms.

Media institutions are being forced to recant – sometimes in humiliating fashion – because they can’t control the flow of criticism from interested and expert observers in the blogosphere. There are many people, myself included, who actually shout at the TV because we object to being propagandized by it. It is very different now that we can hear each other.

Shifting Sands

I’ve driven 400 kilometers south to Albany to visit an old friend so this will be a short post.

David Brooks catches in this piece something I have been feeling for a while – the mood of the US electorate may be changing. I’ve been looking for someway to characterize it and I have to tentatively give Brook’s idea a lot of credit. Essentially he is saying that the electorate is turning from a wartime frame of mind to a post war attitude.

But the more comprehensive difference between a wartime election and a postwar election is that there is a shift in values. In wartime, leadership traits like courage, steadfastness and ruthlessness are prized. Voters are willing to vote for candidates they distrust so long as they seem tough and effective (Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani).

I’m picked that quote because I don’t particularly agree with it as far as trust is concerned, but I agree that both are seen as likely to be tough and effective. I’ve sensed that as Iraq settles down that the way the world looks in Nov 2008 may be a lot less threatening. The dynamics of the war on terror are changing and both sides of politics haven’t found a new position. The shifts in the polls with Obama and Huckabee surging are pretty astonishing. Bill Bradley has some commentary here that details this amazing phenomena.

I’m still very much of the opinion that we are still in for a long war, but I can see there really is a lull right now and that this lull is having a dramatic effect on the US electorate. Here is Brook’s description of the lull:

In Washington, the National Intelligence Estimate was released, suggesting the next president will not face an imminent nuclear showdown with Iran. In Iraq, the surge and tribal revolts produce increasing stability. In Pakistan, the streets have not exploded. In the Middle East, the Arabs and Palestinians stumble toward some sort of peace process. In Venezuela, a referendum set President Hugo Chávez back on his heels.

Again I don’t buy that all these things are what they seem, but I can also see why things appear calmer, and however it turns out I think that the reaction of the public reveals how strongly people wish it were over. I would like to be wrong, but I think the Islamic fanatics will persist and the West will continue to feel its way into the future and continue to make mistakes and stumble on things that work.

Richard Fernandez (Wretchard) of the Belmont Club brings a historian’s perspective to some of the more simplistic thinking being put about by both left and right regarding the unfolding of events in Iraq. The whole thing, as they say, is well worth a read.

Without detracting a whit from the unique contributions of General Petraeus and his staff, I believe historians will find that the Surge was the expression of the ground force’s developing doctrine and not some kind of Castor Oil that had to be poured reluctantly down its throat by a revolutionary leadership.

Without the changes and leadership associated with the Surge Iraq might well have been lost. It was not as if nothing new [emphasis in original ed.] had happened. But the Surge was also built on a lot that was old; the Iraqi political structure which, however imperfect, was nevertheless elected by a population who showed (though it now chic to deride their purple fingers) great courage. It was founded on Iraqi Security Forces who were already being trained by US trainers. It was built on intelligence networks which, as everyone knows, take years to build. It was built most of all, I think, on the collective experience of US officers and NCOs, many of whom were on their second and some on their third tours. The previous tours were not valueless. They were infinitely valuable in providing experience, cultural knowledge, language fluency.

As someone who follows the war closely I completely agree with Wretchard that the success of the surge has evolved out of what the military has been learning and that the situation the surge is addressing successfully now began to ripen well before the actual surge by mid 2006 – which I wrote about here. Wretchard again:

…it’s possible that the Surge could come only when it did. Might it have come earlier with better leadership? Perhaps. Might it never have come at all? Certainly. It’s an open question whether another General other than Petraeus may have come upon an equivalent or even better strategy.

I want to add that it is not just the American military that has been changing. Everyone involved is learning and adapting to the limits of their abilities in response to events. I see three fairly obvious dynamic processes going on among the Iraqis that brought the war to its current state.

The Sunnis needed time – about 3 years – to recognize that their alliance with al Qaeda wasn’t going to work. The civil war al Qaeda provoked to destroy the chances for democracy convinced many in the US and elsewhere in the West that Bush’s policy had failed utterly, but it backfired for the Sunnis who saw their number drastically reduced by death and displacement. al Qaeda’s corruption – executing people for crimes as trivial as smoking while forcing marriage on the sisters and daughters of their indigenous allies – finished them with Iraq’s Sunnis.

Like wise it took time for those initially attracted by totalitarianism, Shia and Sunni, to recognize the alternative presented by the Kurds who simply got on with making the most of the opportunity afforded by the overthrow of Saddam. I think there has been a ‘silent majority’, perhaps even a numerical majority among the Shia who have preferred this course all along but who have been pushed toward despair by the apparently endless continuation of the violence they endured under Saddam. The example of the Kurds holds up the choice between peaceful economic activity and a struggle for absolute dominance. The Sunnis I think have decided to settle for what they can get, while many Shia are still sitting on the fence.

Finally, there is the least developed of these three major dynamic processes, the long persecuted Shiite majority deciding how it will exercise its new found power. There seems to be clear evidence that they are less inclined than they were at first to simply install a Shiite strongman like Sadr, or an Iranian theocracy but both remain real dangers. The sitting government is a problem because it is the result of an election that is a snapshot of conditions in 2004. Consequently, I think they have been slow to adapt to the rapidly evolving situation. Part of the strategy of the surge is to pressure the Iraqi government by presenting it with a functioning local government. The surge – to put it bluntly – is the exact opposite of the 2003-4 strategy of imposing democracy from the top down. At the beginning of the surge Maliki and Petraeus were getting into shouting matches because Petraeus was empowering the newly anti al Qaeda Sunni militias. Now Petraeus is empowering Shiite militias prepared to take on the Rogue Mahdi Army and the Iranian Special Groups. It is an audacious strategy and it might just work. It will certainly make the next Iraqi elections more interesting, to say nothing of the American ones.

Giving ‘em Hell

Michael O’Hanlon has an opinion piece in USA Today that reminds me of the old Democratic party that I used to support. The first Democrat I remember is Harry Truman and what I remember about him is that he gave ‘em hell.


Truman earned that1948 victory grin in the last campaign to be fought from the back of a train – one ‘whistle stop’ at a time.

He gave ‘em hell in Greece, and Berlin and Korea, but the most important thing he did was put the Marshall Plan in place which rejuvenated Western Europe economically and eventually led to both the erection and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

It was Michael O’Hanlon who published A War We Might Just Win in the NY Times with fellow Brookings Institution academic Kenneth Polack back at the end of July. I argued then and still believe that because the authors are Democrats working for the leading liberal think tank and publishing in the leading liberal newspaper that the article will prove to be a critical turning point in the Iraq war just as Walter Cronkite’s declaring Vietnam a quagmire was a decisive change in narrative in1968. Four months later (full article here) O’Hanlon is still trying to warn the Democratic party of the dangers of trying to sell the quagmire narrative to the American people.

Rarely in U.S. history has a political party diagnosed a major failure in the country’s approach to a crucial issue of the day, led a national referendum on the failing policy, forced a change in that policy that led to major substantive benefits for the nation — and then categorically refused to take any credit whatsoever for doing so.

The Democrats should be a shoo in in 2008. They will be almost impossible to dislodge from control of Congress and the country is sick unto death of George Bush. But failure to claim credit for the recent success in Iraq is about as good a way as I know to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Here is a timely example. I got an email from Howard Dean – yes that Howard Dean – in my inbox yesterday. (The Democrats think I am still one of theirs because they signed me up to vote from here in Australia – ironically in Palm Beach County where votes really count.) Here is Dean’s opening gambit taking Bush to task over the recent intelligence report on Iranian nuclear weapons development:

Here we go again.

For the past few months, the Bush Administration exploited the fears of Americans to make their case against Iran. Just a few weeks ago, the President said “I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon.”

This week, 16 U.S. intelligence agencies published a report that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Turns out the White House was aware of this shocking assessment for a few months, but reportedly worked to delay its public release.

Distortions and manipulation to promote a narrow ideological agenda is nothing new to the Bush Administration — it’s how they misled us into Iraq. This is the worst kind of leadership: a dishonest appeal our base emotions.

My problem isn’t that Dean is spinning the release of the intelligence report to maximum advantage – that’s his job. My problem is that he is still trying to sell the idea that Bush is simply fear mongering. 9/11 was real and demanded a response. It still isn’t clear what the best response might have been, but one thing is clear. After a long and difficult time in Iraq we have managed to find a way to make significant progress there. We have actually made allies out a Muslim group that was absolutely opposed to us – Saddam’s very own power base – the Sunni tribesmen of Anbar province. As a keen observer of the unfolding of the war in Iraq, the Anbar Awakening is to me the single most important accomplishment of the entire struggle because it isn’t just a victory of arms, it is recognition by Muslims of the real nature of al Qaeda. ‘Godless thugs’ as one former insurgent put it recently. Furthermore, I have serious doubts if Bush without the Democrat’s 2006 victory would have seized to opportunity as decisively as he has. Remember Petraeus, who is reported to be a Democrat, was sent with unanimous Congressional support. Whether they want it or not, they deserve some of the credit. They would be fools not to take it.

Welcome to The Yankee Wombat

I'm an American in Oz. This blog grows out of my experiences post 9/11 when politics forced itself into the foreground of my awareness. I found myself feeling strongly about political issues and felt I had something to contribute to the debate from an expatriate point of view. This blog is the result. Thanks for joining me. Comments are monitored and either accepted or rejected at my pleasure.