Saturday, January 13, 2007

Martin Luther King on War

Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution quoted the passage below from a King speech in 1967 as part of an essay on the response of Christians to the war in Iraq.

"I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government."

However, King's comment resonates far more broadly in American society than that. The U. S. is the most violent of the advanced industrial nations by far. There's more murder, more rape, more police, more prisoners, more prisons, and more executions than any of the countries of Western Europe or Japan. Almost as heartbreaking as the violence itself is the way that violence is romanticized in the American media. It is hard to say which American television, movies, and popular music romanticize more: theft, fraud, murder, and serial murder or the almost equally violent investigation and punishment of crimes by the police apparatus. In fact, the glamorization of violence by the media is so pervasive that it is almost impossible to escape or avoid.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember King's observation that "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" is our own government. We normally associate the evil of violence with "bad guys" like Osama bin Laden, but the destruction that the Bush administration has caused in Iraq--perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead-- outstrips anything that bin Laden has either done or projected. Going even beyond that, the right-wing routinely rhapsodizes over the possibility of upping the level of violence in the Middle East to WWII levels where we nuked Hiroshima and firebombed Hamburg and Dresden.

Obviously, America can't just give up the path of violence cold turkey. If we did we would have the cultural version of delirium tremens, the hallucinatory disorder that alcoholics and drug addicts fall into when they stop consuming their substance of choice too quickly. But we can resume the work of developing alternative skills and strategies for dealing with problems both here and abroad.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Dance of Bigotry

Creative Bigotry. Another semester is about ready to start at Morehead State University in Kentucky next week. Because I teach African-American thought early in my Intro to Political Theory class, one of the first things I encounter is the newest rationales for racism. When ideas like "blacks are just as racist as whites" peter out, new or recycled ideas like "stereotypes are real" pop up to take their place. Last fall, a student told me to the approval of other white students that racism was causeded by "blacks complaining about racism." Like other dimensions of American culture, white racism has a creative vitality.

Dancing around Anti-immigrant bigotry. In Texas, the town of Farmers Branch near Dallas has adaopted legislation that bans illegal immigrants from renting apartments. According to businessman Andrew Mungeon, the whites in town "don't like Mexicans" and passed anti-immigrant legislation as a result of their bigotry. Illegals, legal immigrants, and Hispanics in general responded by moving out of Farmers Branch and even avoiding the town.

For Tom Bohmier, the leader of a group backing "the city's push against illegal immigration," the charge of ethnic bias is "hogwash. We're going after illegal immigrants." But then he added the kicker: "the message is we are trying to slow down the degradation of our city." "The degradation of our city" is a code phrase for the sentiment that hearing Spanish spoken in the streets and stores, seeing commercial advertisements in Spanish, and the presence of brown-skinned people is a "degradation" of traditional culture, i. e., white culture. Of course, the sentiment that any Hispanic presence beyond tokenism is a "degradation" is a very powerful ethnic bias. Like "color-blind" rhetoric in relation to blacks, opposition to illegal immigration is a mask for a desire to cleanse American society of hispanic culture.

Entangling White Liberals. White liberals generally don't recognize the extent to which the traditional bigotries have begun to entangle them as well. Today's Houston Chronicle has a comment on the efforts of conservative Southern Republicans to use "Democrat" rather than "Democratic" as an adjective --as in Democrat Party, Democrat proposals, and "Democrat" members of Congress. The official rationale for this effort is the idea that "Democratic" has a favorable association with "democracy" that Republicans want to deny to the Democrats. But the real reason is the underlying sense of power over the Democrats that conservatives can claim by "naming" them something they don't want to be called. The ungrammatical sound of "Democrat" Party is also appealing to the anti-intellectualism of conservatives. By imposing "Democrat" as an adjective, conservatives can impose their own sense of moral superiority on the liberal artsy-ness they associate with the Democrats. From the right-wing point of view, liberals are associated with fields like law, science, and the arts, and these fields are characterized in terms of deficiencies in manhood and power--in other words as gay or feminine. In giving the Democrats an ungrammatical name, conservatives experience themselves as imposing their values over wimpy, limp-wristed liberals thus ensnaring white liberals in their homophobia and misogyny.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Killer Rabbits Whose Time Has Come

The Troops are Cold. The lead is hot, but the troops are cold. President Bush got a stiff reception among American troops at Fort Benning, Georgia today. Bush used to get wave after wave of enthusiastic ovations from soldiers and Marines. Now, he gets the same stare from the soldiers that he would get from Cindy Sheehan.

Ideas Whose Time Has Come. And Gone. In "The Case Against Tokenism," Martin Luther King cites Victor Hugo as saying "that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come." That applies for bad ideas as well as good ones. In late 2002 and early 2003, the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq was a bad idea whose time had come and anybody who resisted was castigated as a feckless wimp. Almost four years of failed occupation later, the original power of the idea of invasion only enhances the disgust over its failure.

The Rabbit and the L. Like his father, President Bush's popularity was never very stable even when his job approval ratings were 90%. In my posting for the Slate's Fray, I portrayed this instability through images of killer rabbits coming into Bush's boat just like one came into Jimmy Carter's and an "L for loser" appearing on his forehead. Now that 70% of the population disapproves of the surge, it's safe to say that the killer rabbits of helpless incompetence began to fill Bush's boat during the Katrina debacle and that the failure of the Iraq occupation has stuck the "L" permanently on Bush's forehead.

The Countdown. There are 740 days until the inauguration of the next President. After that Bush with his killer rabbits and his" L for loser" on his forehead head back to Texas. Now, that's an idea whose time has already come.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bush Talking into a Familiar Void

President Bush was stripped down to essentials in his speech tonight. There was no smirk, no swagger, no inspiring anecdotes, no Michael Gerson poetics, no vibe with his audience, and no real effort to convince. All George Bush offered was an "I'm going to keep doing this" to a public that was not interested in listening. In fact, you could almost feel the contempt of the American public on President Bush as he spoke, feel the depth of our desire not to see or hear him anymore. Peering into this particular void is something that President Bush has done many times, as a drunken son confronting his father, a thoughtless student seeing his teachers, a failed businessman meeting creditors, and losing Congressional candidate seeing the rejection in the eyes of his voters. Perhaps President Bush is as familiar with this experience as he is with anything else in the world. Perhaps he has had the tragic sense that he would face the depths of contempt again as President.

Many people learn from failure and rejection and become more thoughtful, mature, and wiser men and women as a result. To the contrary, much of what has defined George Bush as a person has been his refusal to learn from his failures or grow as a human being.

That refusal to mature was on painful display again in tonight's speech. Although President Bush has switched some of the tools in his Iraq policy kit, he is not changing his thinking in any substantial way. As was the case at the time of the invasion, President Bush's speech tonight employed a set of magical assumptions to make the transition from American occupation to democratic self-government seem plausible in Iraq.

Before last November's Congressional elections in the United States, Bush and his advisers assumed that elections would have the magical effect of reconciling Shiite and Sunni, drying up support for insurgents and militias, and creating effective Iraqi government. The opposite has been the case. Elected Iraqi politicians have been so lackadaisical that it took them six months to even form a government while the government itself has been monumentally corrupt and ineffective. It was also riddled with militia loyalists. Thus, when the Samarra mosque was destroyed Shiite militias were armed to the teeth, committed to militancy, and ready to engage in the death squad campaigns that have since engulfed Baghdad and the surrounding area.

In tonight's speech, President Bush claimed that there were no magic bullets for the situation in Iraq, then made several magical assumptions anyway. The first was that embedding the extra five brigades of American troops in Iraqi units would make it possible for the Iraqi Army to take the lead in secure Baghdad. Embedding American troops in Iraqi units was a suggestion of the Iraq Study Group and Iraqi troops certainly have fought better alongside Americans. However, the assumption that the Iraqi Army can take the leading role in reconquering Baghdad is pie in the sky thinking on a large scale. Shiite militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army are already embedded in the Iraqi Army and it is unlikely that the Iraqi Army is going to be either motivated to fight or perhaps even fight at all when they are called upon to invade Shiite neighborhoods and confront the Shiite militias. Moreover, an American/Iraqi invasion of Shiite neighborhoods could spark the same kind of mass revolt among Shiites as the American presence in Anbar has sparked among Sunnis. Ultimately, the new American policies for Baghdad have a better chance of making things worse than better.

After President Bush assumed that Baghdad would become secure, he further assumed that security would bring about reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shiites around the elected government. This is not a plausible way of thinking. It is the fathers and sons of those Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods that the American/Iraqi forces are going to be attacking this spring. If neighborhood men of military are either killed or (more likely) forced to move out, there is going to be a small likelihood of any kind of reconciliation with the Iraqi/American military let alone their traditional sectarian enemies. As the philosopher John Locke noted, military conquest usually results in a continued state of war between the conqueror and the subject population. That has been the case between American troops and the population of Anbar. Even if American forces and our allies reconquer Baghdad, it is likely that the population will remain hostile to both us and their usual enemies.

President Bush has always thought that if he showed enough "will," these kinds of problems would just go away. Like magic! Of course, that hasn't been the case and that's why all the previous Bush administration plans for "Victory in Iraq" have failed so completely. As he enteres the last two years of his administration, President Bush is letting the American public know that he is about to change his thinking now. He's listening to us as little as we're listening to him.

Down to George W., Laura, and the dog?

Last fall, President Bush said he wouldn't withdraw from Iraq even if Laura and his dog Barney were the only ones supporting him.

Well, it's almost gotten to that.

According to a Washington Post report today, the support for President Bush's plan to increase the American troop presence in Baghdad is limited to White House aides, hawks like John McCain, and think tank neo-conservatives like Frederick Kagan. Everybody else--most of the military brass, the Democratic majority in Congress, and public opinion are opposed to the President. The split in public opinion is interesting. A majority of the American public opposes the surge by a small 48%-45% margin. But disapproval of the surge is somewhat of a velvet glove over the iron fist of 72% disapproval of Bush's handling of the war.

Republicans in Congress "ask not" for whom the bell of 72% disapproval tolls--they know it tolls for them in the 2008 election. As a result, Republican leaders like Trent Lott are withholding their approval as well.

The President's speech is tonight. Perhaps Laura should bring his dog as a show of support.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Maybe The Right Should Be Concerned

Conservative authors like Peter Wood seem to be awfully worried about civility these days. Perhaps they fear that the failure of the Bush administration is going to expose them to widespread public scorn and are seeking to head it off in advance.

Sources of Counter-Surge

The Basic Surge Idea: According to Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the new ground commander in Iraq, the plan for the upcoming operations of American and Iraqi forces in Bagdad will be to target the Shiite militias as well as the neighborhoods that host Sunni insurgents. By July or August, he expects to have established military control over Baghdad at which point it would seem that civilian economic and political reconstruction would take higher priority.

The idea would be to clear extremist Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents out of Baghdad, then hold them through civilian reconstruction. Odierno think the overall project would take two to three years.

Sounds relatively simple doesn't it?

Unfortunately, Odierno and the American command make the mistaken assumption that American military power is stronger than the Iraqi resistance. Ultimately, this is not the case. Gen. Odierno is confident American troops can defeat both the Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in battle and force them far enough underground than they are no longer able to operate in the open. However, there are many reasons to think that the Iraqi resistance can either pick the American occupiers to death or engage in their own kind of counter-surge. Either way, the Iraqis may turn out to be the stronger force. Drawing from a June 19 post to my "Caric Comment" blog, I ouline some reasons for thinking this below.

1. Religious/Ethnic Fervor. The first and most important reason is the escalating religious sectarianism of both the Shiite and Sunni populations. Outside Kurdish controlled areas, Iraq is a much more religiously motivated society than it was before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the intensity of sectarian passion on both the Sunni and Shiite sides has made much of the country into an ethnic and religious tinderbox. The power of Muslim sectarianism in Iraqi society can be seen in the explosion of violence after the Samarra bombing in March. When new American troops come into Baghdad, they will only be seeking to control the outcomes of heightened sectarianism in death squad killings and other violence. They won't have any impact on the intensified religiosity and sectarian communal solidarity itself.

The first potential challenge would most likely come from the Shiite community. If the U. S. seeks to destroy the Mahdi Army and it's political, military, and social service apparatus, they could be faced with a general revolt by the Shiite population, especially the people in the Sadr City slum. If that's the case, then the first result of the American surge will have been a major escalation of the popular insurgency and American troops would have to put down the revolt before they sought to establish order.

If the Shiite population does not revolt, there is the likelihood that the Mahdi Army apparatus would fragment (in the same way that the Sunni insurgency fragmented) with small groups of Shiites making it their business to pick off American troops through bomb attacks, small arms fire, and a mortar here and there. While seeking to suppress the low level attacks, the American military command would have to be very wary of not doing anything to spark a large-scale Shiite uprising through indiscriminate killings, targeting the wrong people, and the like. They would also have to worry about not sparking widespread civil disobedience campaigns.

2. Hostility to Occupation. A second source for mutating crises is the hostility of the Iraqi Arab population to the occupation. From the grieving relatives of those killed by the occupation armies, to teen-agers cheering the destruction of American vehicles, to Prime Minister Maliki complaining about the frequent murders of Iraqi civilians, the occupation long ago wore out its welcome with the host Iraqi population. Another 7,500 to 20,000 busy American troops is going to frustrate the Iraqi population much further. Given that Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias are thoroughly embedded in Baghdad neighborhoods, clearing out the militias might mean having to conquer and occupy the whole populations of the neighborhoods in question. That would only make local residents even more disposed to house the insurgents, volunteer for suicide attacks, provide warnings for American troops, and the like.

3. Ineffective Government. The third reason for the relative strength of the insurgency is the relative weakness of the Iraqi government. The inexperience of Iraqi politicians with governing makes the infiltration of the government by insurgents and sectarian militias easy, corruption an appealing first choice, compromise extremely difficult, and concerted action apparently impossible. Needless to say, the Iraqi government has not been able to exercise control over the hostile Sunni population. However, it doesn't seem to exercise any kind of legitimate authority over its Shiite constituents or its own personnel either. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is speaking a lot of brave words about punishing military units that don't report to Bagdad for surge operations, but it seems doubtful that Maliki and Iraqi generals can count on Shiite soldiers to suppress (rather than join) the Shiite militias. The Iraqi government is an especially flimsy paper tiger.

4. The Bush administration. Finally, there is the lack of effort by the Bush administration. It would be a lot easier for the Americans to deal with the problems of Baghdad if people in Baghdad had 24 hours of electricity, readily available gas, and stable employment. There is talk of doubling the money for economic reconstruction, but that will probably be a drop in the bucket. Ultimately, the Bush administration is not strong enough to change any of the economic conditions that contribute to continually escalating violence in Iraq.

As a result, the likely outcome of the surge is the same as the drug war in the United States. Like the DEA and the police in the United States, the American military will be very active, exercise a lot of ingenuity, and round up a lot of bad guys. However, because the American military does not have the power to dampen religious sectarianism, overcome hostility to the occupation, or strengthen the Iraqi government, American generals will find themselves in a situation where small incidents can morph into large-scale surges in violence that render the whole operation futile. It's very difficult to see the surge as being anything but another failure.

Bush's Mormon Rock?

In Utah, support for the Iraq War has fallen to 44%, but President Bush's job approval remains extraordinarily high at 56% in Utah compared to 30% nationwide. It would be interesting to see numbers on President Bush's support among Mormons vs Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps Mormonism serves as a bedrock of President Bush's support much like the Jewish vote for Democrats.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Six Months of RSI

Today is the sixth month anniversary of Red State Impressions. This is the 201st post and I'm pretty happy that I've been able to keep up a six days of posting per week rate. RSI seems to have about 30 readers, mostly from a collection of my Morehead State and Slate Fray friends. Thanks to everybody, especially the Morehead State College Republicans. There's nothing like a diverse audience.

I'm currently trying to link up to other left-wing blogs in an effort to expand my audience. Of course, there are millions and millions of other bloggers doing the same thing.

We'll have to see.