Day: July 17, 2006

The important of structural thinking

Foreign Affairs continues its roundtable on US policy towards Iraq. Today I take aim at Christopher Hitchens’ contribution.

Hitchens open his response by excoriating his fellow panelists for the “absence of historical dimensions” or “by its appearance only in the form of false analogy” in their contributions. What does he mean by this rather clumsy phrase?

There is nothing remotely comparable here with the experience of the French in Algeria and Indochina, or with the experience of the United States in Indochina, let alone that of the Israelis in Lebanon. The United States has not claimed territory in Iraq, as the French did in Algeria: it is not the inheritor of a bankrupt French colonialism, as Eisenhower and Kennedy were in Vietnam; and it is not pursuing a vendetta, as was Sharon in Lebanon.

It is, instead, in a situation where no superpower has ever been before. The ostensible pretext for American intervention – the disarmament of a WMD-capable rogue state and the overthrow of a government aligned with international jihadist gangsterism – was in my opinion based on an important element of truth rather than on a fabrication or exaggeration. But the deeper rationale – that of altering the regional balance of power and introducing democracy into the picture – is the one that must now preoccupy us more. The United States is in Iraq for its own interests, to ensure that a major state with a chokehold on a main waterway of the global economy is not run by a barbaric crime family or by its fundamentalist former allies and would be-successors. But it is also there to release, and not repress, the numberless latent grievances of Iraqi society. And-something surprisingly forgotten by many who fetishize the United Nations-it is there under a UN mandate for the democratization and reconstruction of the country [emphasis added].

Hitchen’s words here should be familiar to anyone who follows the American Empire debate. Here’s Dick Cheney on whether or not the US is an empire: “If we were an empire, we would currently preside over a much greater piece of the Earth’s surface than we do. That’s not the way we operate.” George W. Bush has made an equivalent argument: the United States has “no territorial ambitions, we don’t seek an empire.”

What do these arguments have in common? They confuse differences in motives and goals with differences in structural relationships.

Motives and goals matter enormously. States that invade another political community with the aim of annexing its territory are obviously going to face somewhat different challenges than those who hope to withdrawal their forces after “merely” creating a new ruling regime. But in either case the invading state establishes a relationship with the conquered territory that looks more or less the same. It exercises significant rule over its newly subordinate territory. Where I come from, we call that “an imperial relationship.”

I’ll have more to say about this in a future post on the question of American empire, but for now the example serves my underlying criticism of HItchens: the different motives and objectives involved in various conflicts does not render comparisons between them invalid. Both the US in Iraq and the French in Algeria want to defeat–or, at least, contain–an insurgency aimed at throwing them out. Does it matter that the US inherited corrupt Arab rule in Iraq but corrupt French rule in Indochina? The answer is that we don’t know, because Hitchens is throwing around rather arbitrary contextual differences in an effort to render analogies that put his argument in a bad light inoperative.

Thus, he argues the challenge looks more like that faced by the Algerian military regime in the 1990s. Why? Because the anti-Islamicist regime won that conflict. Never mind that the structural relationships in 1990s Algeria–between an indigenous government and an Islamicist insurgency–might strike some most people as less analogous to the US position in Iraq than the comparisons Hitchens rejects.

There’s a parallel here with what my graduate-school advisor, the eminent sociologist Charles Tilly, calls “standard stories” (PDF). People generally explain social and political outcomes in terms of the motives and character of individuals and organizations. ‘Bush invaded Iraq because he wanted to avenge the assassination attempt against his father.’ ‘Al-Queda attacked the United States because they’re bad people who hate its freedoms.’ ‘The US isn’t an empire because it wants to spread democracy.’ That sort of thing.

Reasoning through standard stories plagues, as these examples suggest, the way that even very smart pundits evaluate international politics. Because a particular side’s intentions are good, we can ignore its acts of torture, its killing of civilians, and so forth. Because the intentions of the United States are different from Fourth Republic France or Israel under Sharon, we cannot possibly compare these cases to discern lessons about occupations and counter-insurgency warfare.

This kind of exercise might be really important to arguments about the justness of war, but it becomes pathological when we want to evaluate policies and strategies. We cannot dispense with analysis of motives and goals, but we ignore the importance of structural relations–and the general dynamics that follow from them–at our peril.

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More thoughts on Israel and Lebanon

Like all other frustrated scholars out there, I wanted to publish an Op-Ed, thinking I have something interesting to say about what’s going on between Israel and Lebanon. I thought that I might have something to contribute– my dissertation had a looooong chapter on the Israel – Lebanon Monitoring Group, a small organizaton set up after Israel’s 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon. There’s not a lot written about the ILMG, so I figured I might have some unique insights.

But, of course, no one picked up the piece, so dear readers, here it is for your consideration:

Ten years ago, Israel launched a military offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon designed to secure Israel’s northern border by destroying Hezbollah’s operational capabilities. The 1996 “Operation Grapes of Wrath” proceeded with tacit US approval and escalated rapidly. Only after Israeli artillery fire hit a UN refugee camp did the US and international communities launch a flurry of shuttle diplomacy and negotiate an understanding that served as an effective cease-fire.

The situation today has many echoes of the past. This is Israel’s fifth major military incursion into Lebanon—1978, 1982, 1993, 1996, and now 2006—to stop a non-state terrorist organization resident in Lebanon from launching attacks against Israel. In each case, the Israeli army pushed northward into Lebanon while Israeli artillery and panes bombed key targets across the country. The broad Israeli strategy also remains the same—to use direct attacks to displace and destroy the PLO (in 1978 and 1982) or Hezbollah (in 1993, 1996, and now) while also using the indirect pressure of wider attacks to press the Lebanese government to reassert control of its territory. None of these operations were isolate incidents; they all had deep connections to wider regional issues and brought fears of regional escalation. Only US-led international intervention prevented that nightmare.

The 1996 April Understanding that ended Grapes of Wrath established a basic set of rules for the Israeli – Hezbollah conflict: Neither side should launch attacks from or target civilians or civilian areas. The agreement also established a little-known but effective monitoring group comprised of US, French, Syrian, Lebanese, and Israeli representatives. This Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group (ILMG), monitored the cease-fire and discussed violations brought by either side. At its height, the ILMG was able to identify and even blame both sides for cease-fire violations. Through the ILMG’s work, civilian causalities on both sides fell significantly. The ILMG managed the Israeli – Hezbollah conflict, limiting it to military on military confrontations in southern Lebanon up until Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.

Four key differences, however, separate the current situation from the past.

First, the Palestinians occupy a fundamentally different position then they had in the past. The Palestinians played no role in the 1993 and 1996 operation against Hezbollah. Today, its no accident that the Hezbollah action sparking this inferno happened as Israel was in Gaza fighting Hamas. Some reports suggest that the PA is subtly working with Israel to undermine its rival Hamas, while Shi’ite Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas are now coordinating their actions against Israel. Even if this coordination is merely rhetorical, it puts Israel in the position of fighting a two front war.

Second, Iran has moved to center-stage in the contemporary Middle East drama. Iran is Hezbollah’s primary sponsor and it is not shy about using this influence to its advantage. Within the past year, Iran has markedly increased its anti-Israel rhetoric, its position as a leader of Shi’ites throughout the region, and its status as a regional power through its pursuit of a nuclear program. Iran’s influence does create a small opening for diplomacy as part of an overall nuclear deal, but the US and EU-3 seem unlikely to press these linkages. With oil topping $78 per barrel, Iran is in a strong position to act as Hezbollah’s enabler.

Third, the relationship between Syria and Lebanon has shifted dramatically. In 1996, Syria was the puppet-master in Lebanon and very influential with Hezbollah. The 1996 Understanding and subsequent monitoring group worked because Syria could keep Hezbollah in line with major components of the agreement. When Syrian troops quit Lebanon after the Cedar Revolution, Syria lost some of its influence over Hezbollah, and most likely can no longer “deliver” Hezbollah compliance with any cease-fire agreement. Lebanon, free from Syrian control, is now able to speak for itself, but with Hezbollah as one of the political parties within the Lebanese parliament, it has little ability to act, and no one to prop it up if it stumbles.

Finally, the US has a fundamentally different involvement in the region from a decade ago. Then, focus was on diplomacy in the context of a wider Middle East Peace Process. Secretary of State Christopher was a regular visitor to Damascus and the US was pushing a variety of peace agreements, including one between Syria and Israel. Today, focus is anti-terrorism and Iraq. Any wider escalation that involves Syria could easily spill over to involve US troops in Iraq near the Syrian border. Israel’s policy of eliminating state harbors for terrorists echo’s the Bush Administration’s approach in Afghanistan. As a result, the Bush Administration is more inclined to let the conflict play out as Hezbollah is weakened as opposed to press for a diplomatic solution.

Unlike 1996, the situation today does not bode well for quick and manageable cease-fire. As Iraq has demonstrated, large scale military operations against local insurgent terrorist organizations have a difficult time producing tangible results absent a wider political settlement. Hezbollah, like Hamas or the insurgents in Iraq, gains more popular support from fighting than from compromise, and the strong political actors that were able to force a Hezbollah – Israeli compromise in 1996 are less inclined to do so today. Unless the US and Israel exercise extreme caution, they risk inciting a region-wide conflict that will be exceedingly difficult to end.

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Congitive dissonance and the stabbed in the back narrative

Wretched argues the following:

If Sheehan is right [that we will date WW3 to the bombing of the USS Cole] , then the Global War on Terror would have failed. A focused attack on extremism will have been supplanted by an uncontrolled clash between peoples, religions and cultures. But we are not there yet. There’s still a chance, and the rulers of the Middle East are hoping that this thing can be pulled back from the brink and the fires focused on Hezbollah, then possibly on a narrow coterie in Teheran.

And if that does come to pass, whom should we blame? Liberals of course. Why?

But if that way forward fails, a large part of the blame will historically fall on those who forced the West to fight the war against terrorists with politically correct half-measures. Who created the dinky rules which made it impossible to excise abominations like Hezbollah and Hamas. Or even to question them. And perhaps made it even necessary to fund them. Their good intentions or fecklessness have made the terrible alternative that stares us in the face likely. Let us only hope that they have not made it inevitable.

If only the “west” had used overwhelming military force everywhere, and not just in Iraq, then we could have avoided the impending clash of civilizations.

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VDH strikes again

Why do people pay this man for his commentary?

Dan’s favorite commentator is back again, this time with an op/ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hanson essentially lays out what he sees as the talking points the Bush administration should be using in an effort to deflate criticism of the handling of the War on Terror. What follows is a long, snarky discussion of Hanson’s latest drivel.

VDH’s first problem lies with questions regarding how to deal with the prisoners at GITMO:

“Take the uniformless and stateless terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay. To be sure, there are alternatives to the current U.S. policy, but are they any better? Should we try hundreds of them in American courts like Zacarias Moussaoui or in international tribunals as the Europeans attempted with Slobodan Milosevic? Or send them home to face torture in autocracies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Or do we ship the terrorists back to countries that would simply declare them heroes and let them go?”

In short, yes. Try them in modified courts, consistent with the US Military Code of Justice, approved by Congress, and able to pass judicial review. It would be nice if he actually advanced an argument as to why this is undoable, but then he would be taking up valuable space he must use for the kind of hackery that follows. Oh, and I like how it was the ‘Europeans” that tried Milosevic. Funny, I thought it was the ICTY authorized by the United Nations Security Council with express support of the United States. But maybe I was wrong. Moving on.

Hanson then proceeds to write an utterly disingenuous paragraph (or one that reveals his utter inability to engage with the logic of an opposing position) regarding the surveillance issue:

“And can the critics offer better ways to track terrorists than through wiretapping and surveillance? How, otherwise, would one have learned in time about those in Miami who plotted to take down the Sears Tower, or the Lebanese cadre who planned to blow up the Holland Tunnel?”

He is right. Critics cannot offer better ways to track terrorists than through wiretapping and surveillance. The problem is critics have never said “don’t use wiretapping and surveillance”. They haven’t attempted such a things. Rather, they have said “please obtain a warrant as the law states—oh, and by the way, we would like some Congressional oversight just so we are, you know, reassured that the government is acting in accordance with law which, after all, is how it works in a democracy.” I think Hanson may have had problems with the reading comprehension sections of the GRE. Next:

“In other words, there’s an advantage to providing historical perspective by engaging one’s critics and answering their charges.”

This, of course, should be read as: ‘there’s an advantage to providing historical perspective by using purposefully misleading examples that lack proper perspective and context so as to render any argument against my position silly.’ See his discussion of Lincoln and FDR. Lincoln had his actions overturned afterwards by those bunch of activist, liberal, America-hating justices. The internment camps were upheld in 1944, but certainly the government has gone out of its way since then to apologize for the unjust internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. In other words, yes, there are instances historically where similar things occured. But that alone does not mean that we agree they were just, agree they were necessary and effective, or agree that they are the best course of action in the present. Next, taking on foreign critics:

“In Europe, a poll recently showed that people there view the United States as a greater threat than Iran. If this is the case, is it not time to politely suggest to our “allies” that many of our half-century-old military bases in prosperous Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain have outlived their usefulness?”

This certainly offers no rebuttal of the charges, but is a not-so-veiled attempt to tell those weak-kneed Europeans to STFU or else we will shut down those revenue-generating bases that you have come to enjoy so much. How does this address the argument? Next, the resolve issue (my fav):

“And when Americans are butchered, are we to skedaddle, as both Presidents Reagan and Clinton did, from Lebanon and Somalia respectively?”

No, of course not. (begin run-on rant) We should deploy the bulk of our fighting force to overthrow a regime that, while despicable, had absolutely nothing to do with the butchering of our citizens on 9/11 in order to send a message to others–which they won’t get because the operation will actually make our threats less credible since we will weaken our capacity to project power over the course of 4 years (end run-on rant).

And certainly acting more muscularly has worked to deter terrorist attacks against Israel. They never worry about such attacks anymore. Showing resolve may matter and it may not matter–it is not a panacea for dealing with terrorists (not mention the fact that actors can interpret your actions any way they like–typically in such a way that conforms to their worldview as well confirms that their policies ‘work’, but I digress). Victor, please put down whatever it is you are reading these days (as well as whatever you are smoking) and pick up the vast number of peer-reviewed articles that present evidence which disproves your theory.

Hanson ends with a flurry of familiar platitudes about “jihadists are evil” (no, really?), blah, blah, blah. You can read that for yourself. If his goal was to provide the administration and its defenders with a solid arguments to rebutt their critics I would have to say he failed. How in the world this made it onto the op/ed page of the Inquirer I have no idea. There are quality commentators who can present a defense of the administration’s policies. VDH is not one of them. Go with someone else in the future.

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Some developments that, I hope, will prove me wrong


I’ve been critical of the strategic wisdom of the IDF attacks in Lebanon, but some new developments suggest that it might work after all. Haagi at American Footprints:

The Lebanese government appears to be throwing in its lot against Hezbollah, appealing for international help to change the dynamic in the south of the country:

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called Saturday for an immediate cease-fire with Israel, and asked for help in deploying the country’s army in the south, from where Hezbollah has for days pounded northern Israel with Katyusha rockets.

“We call for an immediate cease-fire backed by the United Nations,” said Siniora in an address to the nation. “We call to broaden the state’s control over all of its territory, in cooperation with United Nations forces, in southern Lebanon.”

Siniora also called on Lebanon to “work to recover all Lebanese territories and exercising full sovereignty of the state over those territories,” Saniora said in a televised address to the nation.

His voice cracking with emotion, Saniora criticized Hezbollah without naming the group, saying Lebanon “cannot rise and get back on its feet if its government is the last to know.”

“The government alone has the legitimate right to decide on matters of peace and war because it represents the will of the Lebanese people,” he said.

A cease-fire alone will not be seen as sufficient by Israel, if it leaves the military infrastructure of Hezbollah intact for future attacks. International troops alone aren’t enough either, as UN troops in Lebanon contributed little or nothing to preventing escalation at various times in the last 30 years. But an internationally backed deployment of Lebanese government forces in the south is surely the best that Israel can hope for at this point. Disarmament of Hezbollah will have to follow, not just some co-existence where they get to preserve their military infrastructure under someone else’s cover, but Israel can’t realistically expect more at this point than what Siniora is now effectively giving them.

Brian Ulrich adds:

Today, at least one IDF officer is predicting that the offensive will end next week. What will it have accomplished from the Israeli perspective? Hizbullah will still be there, though perhaps weak enough for the Lebanese army to move in. But how might they be received by Hizbullah’s supporters? And what kind of relationship would Hizbullah and the rest of Lebanon develop after this affair? What good was bombing some of Hizbullah’s supply routes?

And, if I might chime in: what kind of international presence will be necessary to assist the Lebanese government? Surely not a peacekeeping force. We’ve been there and done that.

But the escalating attacks by both sides lead me to question, again, the probability that the current “best case” option will come to pass.

Hezbollah and Israel traded rocket and missile barrages for a sixth day Monday, as warfare that has erupted in the Middle East showed no sign of easing. Hezbollah rockets struck deep inside Israel, killing eight people in the northern city of Haifa, and Israel retaliated with waves of missiles from Lebanon’s north to south and into the Bekaa Valley near Syria.

The toll on both sides rose to above 200, most of them civilians, as strikes continued into Monday. In addition to the Israeli victims at a rail repair facility in Haifa, an Israeli rocket blew up a Lebanese army position, killing eight soldiers, and a sea-launched missile killed at least nine people in the southern Lebanese port of Tyre.

Israel had warned of massive retaliation after the Haifa attack, and accused Iran and Syria of providing the weaponry used in it. Israeli military officials said four of the missiles were the Iranian-made Fajr-3, with a 22-mile range and 200-pound payload, and far more advanced than the Katyusha rockets the guerrillas had rained on northern Israel earlier.


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed “far-reaching consequences” for the Haifa attack, Hezbollah’s deadliest strike ever on Israel. The morning barrage of 20 rockets came after Israeli warplanes unleashed their heaviest strikes yet on Beirut, flattening apartment buildings and blowing up a power station to cut electricity to swaths of the capital.

Even before the latest Israeli retaliation, Israeli airstrikes had devastated southern Beirut, a teeming Shiite district that is home to Hezbollah’s main headquarters.

The Jiyeh power plant, on Beirut’s southern outskirts, was in flames after it was hit, cutting electricity to many areas in the capital and south Lebanon. Firefighters pleaded for help from residents after saying they didn’t have enough water to put out the blaze.

Some residents of Beirut’s southern Shiite neighborhood, Dahiyah, ventured out of shelters to collect belongings from their shattered city blocks, where buildings were collapsed on their sides, missing top floors or reduced to pancaked concrete. Many emerged from their destroyed apartments with bulging shopping bags or suitcases as young Hezbollah gunmen urged them to leave quickly.

Large swaths of Beirut were covered with dust, and the city of 1.5 million people was emptying as residents fled. Furniture pieces, blankets, mattresses, clothes and soft toys were scattered on the streets. A copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, lay in the street with its dusty pages fluttering until a Hezbollah gunman reverently lifted it and kissed it.

“We want to sleep on our own pillows in the shelter,” Mariam Shihabiyah, a 39-year-old mother of five said as she emerged from her home with an armful of pillows and clothes. “Can you believe what happened to Dahiyah?”

The Israeli military warned residents of south Lebanon to flee, promising heavy retaliation after the Haifa assault. “Nothing will deter us,” Olmert said.

Regardless, US and Israeli officials say that the campaign could go on for weeks.

Israel, with U.S. support, intends to resist calls for a cease-fire and continue a longer-term strategy of punishing Hezbollah, which is likely to include several weeks of precision bombing in Lebanon, according to senior Israeli and U.S. officials.

For Israel, the goal is to eliminate Hezbollah as a security threat — or altogether, the sources said. A senior Israeli official confirmed that Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah is a target, on the calculation that the Shiite movement would be far less dynamic without him.

For the United States, the broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to change the strategic playing field in the Middle East, U.S. officials say.

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