Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bipartisan gang-bang

Bill Frist and Hillary Clinton, Chuck Shumer and George Pataki, Republicans and Democrats, bonding together.

What could bring about such unity of spirit, such solidarity of purpose?


While the world was distracted by the biennial celebration of spirit that is the Olympics, Congress has jumped en masse into that greatest of all games in international politics: jingoism. And no red state vs. blue state politics here. This is a free-for-all.

All this because a port management firm that operates several U.S. ports is being sold by its British owners to a Dubai company owned by the United Arab Emirates. It is not a question of foreign operations, as Senator Clinton has tried to suggest. After all, the current owner is British. It is not a question of security operations, as Senator Boxer has opined, as the operator manages loading operations and is not responsible for security.

It is not even a question of knowing what they are talking about, as Majority Leader Frist appeared to concede, suggesting that he wants to delay the sale until he can learn why the Bush Administration approved the transaction to begin with. Minority Leader Harry Reid, never to be out done on issues of national security, announced that he wants to block the sale too.

Just at the moment when some subtlety appeared to be in order, and a bit of sensitivity toward the handling of relations with the Muslim world, Congress goes off on a bender. This is not to suggest that the proposed change in ownership of a port operating company should not be scrutinized, but this smacks more of Senators trying to outdo each other to demonstrate their zeal to defend the homeland, to demonstrate their vigilance to the voters.

A bit of decorum would be in order.

Perhaps instead of rushing for the nearest microphone, a disquieted Senator might place a quiet phone call to Steven Hadley, the National Security Advisor, requesting a briefing on the national security considerations surrounding the change in ownership. Perhaps some thought might be given to a Coast Guard budget––where the security operations for ports are housed––that inspects no more than 5% of the containers arriving at our nation’s ports.

Perhaps some thought might be given to the hundreds of millions of Muslims across the world who want to know that they and their brethren are not being arbitrarily ostracized for their faith. Perhaps, just perhaps.

How is it that the same group of Senators that voted en masse to go to war in Iraq after only seven of them bothered to read the National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the CIA––a document that, as it turned out, cast doubt on the central premise for the war––now are going nuclear about the sale of a port operating company from one foreign owner to another.

Ah, yes. The new owner is Arab.

Congress ought to get a grip. They are becoming an embarrassment.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Vox umma, vox Allah

Even as the Bush Administration asserts that Osama Bin Laden is trapped and that Al Qaeda is on the run, a key Jihadist victory has been achieved to little fanfare.

The umma has awakened.

The response to the Muslim cartoons, as unsettling as it has been to observers in the west, has marked a key milestone in Bin Laden’s campaign to rebuild the Caliphate and challenge western democracies. The umma, the Muslim nation, a transnational community sharing a single faith, responded to the call of the ulama, the clerical community and rose at once, seemingly with one voice. The voice of the umma––to borrow from the Latinate expression vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God––rose as if the voice of Allah.

It was not the rallies and riots in the Arab nations that were notable, as those, particularly in Iran and Syria, had the trappings of officially instigated events, but rather those within the western democracies themselves. Protesters across Europe, fully armed with banners chanting the likes of “Down with freedom, God is Great”––and the eternal cry of those in need of an outlet for their discontent, “Death to America”––took to the streets to protests the publication of cartoons that to the non-believer seemed benign, second rate parody.

While the rise of the umma and the demand that non-Muslim states and peoples adhere to certain Koranic proscriptions marks a fundamental challenge the western notions of pluralism, it should first and foremost be understood for what it is, a profound victory for Bin Laden in a strategically complex battle for the hearts and minds of Islam. The rise of the umma, the emergence of a self-identified Islamic nation that is transnational and inter-sectional does not necessarily imply the radicalization of that same community, but it is certainly a precondition to the radicalization that Bin Laden seeks. He has, through the 9/11 attacks and the responses that it engendered, achieved a significant milestone in pursuit of his longer-term goal.

As little as five years ago, it was easy to dismiss as absurd the Jihadist dreams of reestablishing the Caliphate, the great transnational Muslim nation established in the wake of the death of the Prophet Muhammad that continued in various forms until its final dissolution 85 years ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire. By the end of the 20th century, with the help of national borders drawn by colonial powers, Islam had become a dispersed faith, decentralized into a world of regional and sectoral potentates more often at war with each other than not. Sunni vs. Shia, Arab vs. Persian vs. Turk vs. Kurd. Pastun vs. Tagik. On and on.

Bin Laden’s strategies were artful and indirect. His goal in attacking America was not first and foremost to kill Americans, but rather to engender an American military response. And in George Bush, Bin Laden had the foe that would serve his purposes. Imbued with a messianic zeal to lead Freedom’s March into the heart of Islam, Bush has played the role of the Crusader to Bin Laden’s Saladin, and through a chain of missteps and abuses––from Abu Graib to Guantanomo to the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis in a unilateral war that bore no credible link to the attacks on America––undermined America’s moral authority with the very population whose support he sought to win, and steadily elevated Muslim disquiet and ultimately religious identity.

The Global War on Terror is entering a new phase. The Bush Administration is quietly dismantling the Bush Doctrine, as the Neoconservative experiment has fallen out of favor and the March of Freedom is being set aside in the face of adverse electoral outcomes in the Middle East, the looming prospect of electoral defeats at home, and the emerging realization of how badly the war in Iraq and the doctrine of unilateralism has damaged America in the world. It is an open question if in this new phase an Administration with a penchant for boots on the ground and aggressive rhetoric can reverse course and learn new subtleties, and even humility. In this new phase, however, the broader community of nations has a great stake and will not sit idly by and let America lead alone. If the Danes have done nothing else, they have woken people up.

The GWOT cannot survive the radicalization of the umma that Bin Laden envisions. The battle for the soul of Islam is a battle for the viability of religious pluralism in the west. Bin Laden understands this, and he also knows that the Caliphate is unlikely to emerge during his lifetime. Like Moses, he does not expect to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, but he has seen the emergence of the umma and believes that the battle he has longed for has been joined.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Harry took one for the team

If it is a strategy, it is brilliant.

Imagine this for a moment. A few months down the road, Vice President Dick Cheney, faced with a recurring heart condition and the aftermath of the controversy surrounding his hunting accident, succumbs to his family’s concern for his health and well-being and steps aside as Vice President. For Cheney, it would be a natural decision. After all, he has accomplished what he came to accomplish, and by stepping down he can assure that the policies he put in place will continue when Condi Rice is inaugurated as President in 2008.

Is it so far fetched? Rice is a protégé of Brent Scowcroft and a foreign policy realist deeply committed to Cheney’s plan to reassert American power in the world. Weaned on the intricacies of Cold War diplomacy, she was never part of the Neocon cabal, and she has proven her capacity to stand her ground in the face of diplomatic fury. That she is Pro-Choice is no problem for Cheney, as social issues are inconsequential in the scheme of things from his vantage point.

For Cheney, the 2008 presidential election is wide open and there is little chance that the winner, Democrat or Republican, understands the world as he does. Of the Republicans, McCain is a self-righteous demagogue, Giuliani is a preening lightweight, and don’t even get him started on the smart-money front-runner George Allen. Of the Democrats, Hillary has more balls than the rest of them combined and understands Realpolitik, but will be hamstrung by MoveOn and the rest, and if Warner makes it as the anti-Hillary, the first four years will be learning on the job.

But Cheney would step aside for Condi. She is tough and she gets it. The only problem is that she won’t run. Not the normal way, in any event. But if Cheney steps down, she could step in and––despite the squealing from across the political spectrum––no one could mount a challenge to her confirmation. Cheney’s last act on the public stage would be to assure a Republican victory in 2008, and put in place a presidency committed to continuing his legacy.

Meanwhile, in the midst of CheneyShotHarryGate, MoveOn circulated an email to its members asking the question ”Should we take on right wing Democrats?” The MoveOn email suggested that it was time “to hold Democrats to their Party’s highest values on issues like foreign policy, economic prosperity and good government.” The idea of going after Democrats that don’t heel to MoveOn’s views was offered in a strategic context, suggesting that it would help the Democratic Party present a clear choice to the nation in coming elections.

Perhaps, but the MoveOn question reeks of the party-line purification stage of life in the minority, and is a strategic distraction. After all, while Democrats are seeking out ways to better define themselves, the Republican Party is gleefully jumping in to help out. Last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman formally launced the 2008 race against Hillary Clinton by floating the notion that she is “too angry to be President.” So as the 2006 races approach, the Republicans are running hard against the Democrats, while the Democrats are considering taking a run against themselves.

Strategy is all-important in politics and it is where the Republicans have had it all over the Democrats of late. Perhaps a lesson from Fatah is in order. Hamas won their electoral landslide with only 44% of the popular vote. Facing internal strife between the old guard and younger leaders, Fatah ran multiple candidates in some districts and none in others. Fatah voters outnumbered Hamas voters handsomely as it turned out, but Hamas won nonetheless.

The Democrats are now facing several challenges. Hillary Clinton has the presence, the organization and the war chest to win the 2008 nomination in a walk. This even as many in the Party question both whether she can win a general election and whether they want her to––“I just don’t know, she seems so angry… At the same time, the lack of clear leadership and a message is leaving groups like MoveOn empowered to undertake their own ill-conceived efforts to define the Party in their own image. For Democrats, Bill Clinton aside, strategy is an elusive thing. One week the strategy will be the Culture of Corruption, the next week it will be the Crisis of Competence, and next week it might be Force Cheney Out.

While the Democrats try to figure out their next strategy, the Republicans already have one, and Dick Cheney may even have his own. So when the calls begin, as they have, for Cheney to step down, an old adage is apt. Be careful what you wish for, because he might just do it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dick Cheney's view of the world

For all we know, Dick Cheney shot the guy in the face just so people would have something else to focus on.

Because Dick Cheney has bigger fish to fry than worrying about jokes about his aim on the Daily Show or musings by the left that if a heart attack doesn’t get him, maybe a manslaughter charge will. Cheney remains steadfast in his focus on the big picture and for five years now has used the platform of the Bush presidency to address what he views as the singular problem facing America and the world.

The problem is simple and the numbers do not lie. The world today consumes around 80 million barrels of oil per day. By 2025 demand for oil is expected to grow by 50% to around 120 million barrels per day. While the President may bemoan U.S. oil addiction in his State of the Union speech, the truth is that the growth in demand is not a product of our profligacy, but rather is a direct result of our victory in the Cold War.

Over the past twenty years, as national economies have opened up and nuclear weapons have stood down, an estimated 1.4 billion people have entered the world labor markets. As those nations––including India, China and the former Soviet Republics––continue to develop, and as their people strive to better their lives and achieve a middle class lifestyle, the demand for oil will continue to climb.

Hummers or no Hummers, with or without hybrid cars, however one constructs the scenario, world energy demand is going to rise. Faced with low approval ratings, the President bought some applause with his crowd-pleasing but reality-distracting line, but the fact is that our oil addiction is beside the point. World demand in the future will drive prices and will drive scarcity. Our national economy is inextricably tied to the fate of our trading partners and reducing our dependency on Middle East oil, and even achieving so-called “energy independence,” is a chimera, an illusion and a false goal.

If Cheney was President, he would have stated bluntly that we will live or die with the rest of the world, and therefore we have no choice but to lead. America is the dominant nation in the world today and it is our singular responsibility is to take the steps necessary to assure long-term stability in the future. Stability in markets, stability in resource availability, stability in trade, stability in energy flows. Even China, the last remaining antagonist of the Cold War era, clearly understands that her growth demands world stability, and that world stability demands effective American leadership. American failure in this regard over the next two decades will surely lead to a world of scarcity, economic isolationism, political turmoil and, ultimately, war.

Understanding this imperative, Cheney had two goals for a Bush presidency six years ago. First, after almost 30 years, it was essential to reverse the whittling away of the powers of the presidency that he witnessed beginning in the aftermath of Watergate when he served as Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff. Second, it was imperative to reestablish the credibility of United States military power on the ground––particularly in the Middle East, the key source of both geopolitical instability and oil.

As he saw it, these two goals were inextricably linked. The erosion in presidential authority and executive power had dangerously undermined our credibility in the world. From Arabia to Korea to the Straits of Taiwan, America was seen as a paper tiger. As Bin Laden was quick to point out, people follow the strong horse, and as America became weaker others were quick to seize the advantage.

This could not continue. And for Dick Cheney, the war in Iraq was the essential first step to pulling the world back from the precipice.

That war was not about WMD. They didn’t matter then and they don’t matter now. For the Neocons, WMD was the argument for going to war, but it was never the reason to go to war. As Paul Wolfowitz laid out the history in Vanity Fair magazine, the Neocons in the Administration had four reasons to take out Saddam, (i) his support for terrorism in the region, (ii) his criminal treatment of the Iraqi people, (iii) his history of instigating wars with his neighbors, and (iv) the WMD threat. They settled on the WMD argument simply because it would sell.

Cheney went along, but he is not now and never was a Neocon. He is an old school Cold Warrior and Realist. While the Neocons held out theories of the power of democracy, Cheney remained focused on the direction of the world economy and the looming train wreck he saw two decades down the road.

For Dick Cheney, the invasion of Iraq addressed the fundamental problem facing the United State and the world: the decline of American power and credibility in the Middle East. By the time the tanks rolled into Iraq in 2003, Jihadists were a concrete threat to stability in the Middle East. Fearing Al Qaeda’s wrath, Saudi Arabia had already asked the United States to remove its forces from the kingdom. Iran was emerging as a threat. By failing to respond America was validating Jihadists claims about American weakness.

American power in the Gulf was in freefall, and in the Middle East power is the ultimate currency. As Cheney saw it, the democratic ambitions of the Neocons may smell sweet in Washington, but in Damascus, in Cairo and in Baghdad, and deep in the caves of Tora Bora, power was the only emollient for what ailed the United States.

For Dick Cheney, the Iraq war was about reestablishing the bona fides of the United States in a region in which power is the only currency that matters. A show of force in Iraq would communicate to the region and the world what needed to be communicated. To the Saudis, it would let them know that we were there for the duration, that their fate was our fate and that we were not to be trifled with or kicked out. To Iran it was a reminder that we were there in force, with boots on the ground on their western and eastern borders. To China, India and the other growing oil importing nations, it established that America was not receding behind its oceans, and would lead the world into the 21st century.

The success in five short years has been as Cheney envisioned it would be. The Bush Administration has reestablished the Presidency as the focus of power in the country. Notions of co-equal branches of government have been firmly set aside. The courts have been reconstituted with greater deference to executive power and Congress has been effectively put in its place.

The debate over the terrorist surveillance program provides clear evidence of this success. The Administration is yielding no ground in its assertion of executive power, and will only offer that it is always willing to listen to what the Congress has to say or offer on the subject. But no more than that. The power of the White House has been restored.

And from Cheney's vantage point, the war in Iraq has achieved its main goal: the United States has boots on the ground in the Middle East and the powers that be in the region understand that the United States is not to be trifled with. While the election results in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian Authority spell the end of the Administration’s infatuation with the Neocon agenda, Cheney’s deeper strategy is firmly in place and he sees ample evidence of its success:

First, three years after demanding that the U.S. leave the Kingdom, Saudi Ambassador Turki Al-Faisal this week declared that Saudi relations with the United States were as strong as they have ever been. The Saudis have committed billions to building oil refineries in the Kingdom, as well as in China, in Russia and in Korea, to do their part to meet future growth in worldwide demand.

Second, in Pakistan, Musharraf is no longer on the fence, and is building a new intelligence service to undermine the power of the ISI, one of our long-time antagonists.

Third, Egypt and its intelligence services are cooperating with us with no public equivocation. When Hamas came to Cairo seeking support after their electoral victory, the Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman laid down the law: they must recognize Israel and renounce their terrorist ambitions.

Finally, Iran is increasingly isolated and the world is acting in concert with little equivocation. Europe is no longer waffling, and both China and Russia have agreed to a common strategy to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As Cheney looks at the world, the success of his plan is unarguable, if not yet recognized. While the media storm around him continues, and regardless of what comes next, he is resting easy knowing that in five years he has achieved what he set out to do.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Death to Denmark!

Death to Denmark!

Alliteration aside, it is an unlikely political rallying cry. Harkens back to “Down with Canada!” from the Northwest Salmon Wars of a few years back.

It is an odd political moment. The Muslim outrage at the work of Danish political cartoonists has stiffened the European spine like few events in the simmering cross-cultural imbroglio that seems to be defining the new century. Newspapers across the continent quickly rose to the defense of the Danes as threats to the principle of free speech have galvanized European opinion in ways that other recent events have failed to do. Bombings in London and Madrid, and riots in France all engendered public reaction, but still much of it was soul searching questions of “Why here, why us?”

For those who watched the video of the murder of Nicholas Berg, no moment has ever so graphically defined cruelty. Kneeling on the ground facing the camera with hooded men standing behind him, one man, presumably Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, brandished a long knife, pushed Berg over to the side, pressed his head to the floor and as Berg screamed sawed his head off in several swift strokes. He then held the head up to the camera.

All in the name of Allah and the Prophet (Peace Be Unto Him). Can one imagine a greater act of blasphemy? Of pure disgrace to a religion or to a people?

Yes, there was shock and some outrage. But barely a word beyond the usual perfunctory protests from the leadership of the Muslim community. Zarqawi had defined and defiled the faith in an act of pure and barbaric cruelty. Still, no crowds gathered, no Imams called the faithful to protest this defilement of the words the Prophet or spirit of Allah, the compassionate.

But a cartoon. A cartoon that by any measure lacked the viciousness of so many political cartoons over the years. Political cartoons that have caricatured Christians and Jews, religious leaders and gods. Just take a peak at the mainstream Arab press and one can catch a glimpse of vile political cartoons speaking out the editorial voice of those communities. A Jewish Pope labeled with a swastika drinking the blood of a Palestinian baby. Gentle stuff. But not to pick on them, political cartooning has a long and biting history.

Some demonstrators have suggest that the images––such as the Prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb––labeled a whole people as violent extremists, and the Bush administration endorsed this theme when it called the cartoons offensive and criticized the decision to publish them. But––with all due respect to the Jewish Pope noted above––caricature is not the issue at hand and the problem here is not one of tolerance per se. The Koranic injunction is not about caricature or character assassination, but rather it is the very representation of the Prophet, the image itself rather than the subject. The defilement was the act of making a representation, whatever the context, whatever the parody. The violation of Koranic law was the act of drawing.

It is for the drawing itself that the demands for retribution are made. For the act of drawing came the demands to cut off the hands of or murder the artists.

Set aside for a moment why Islamic law should govern the cartoonist in Denmark. Set aside for the moment the question of insult to a Hindu traditionalist of world-wide consumption of beef. Just this question: What of Zarqawi? Is there no Koranic proscription against the raw and cruel murder of one man in the name of the faith, in the name of the Prophet? Thirteen hundred years later cannot the clerics see that debasement of the faith as a more fundamental indictment that a political cartoon. Is Al-Jazeera, who broadcast that video not more complicit in the debasement of Islam than France-Soir.

Each faith is debased by the actions of its adherents and by the voices or silence of its community. The Judeo Christian tradition. The prophetic tradition. Abraham, Issac, Ishmael, Joseph, Moses, Josiah ben Joseph, Muhammad. Jehovah, Yaweh, G-d, Allah. Were they not all defiled when Nicholas Berg’s head was raised up off that floor?

Death to Denmark! The principle of free speech does matter, and if that is what it takes for Europe to find its voice, to feel some outrage, so be it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006