The Times has a must read piece on the political impact of the now infamous bootlegged Saddam video:
For Sunnis, Dictator’s Degrading End Signals Ominous Dawn for the New Iraq
BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 — For Sunni Arabs here, the ugly reality of the new Iraq seemed to crystallize in a two-minute segment of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, filmed surreptitiously on a cellphone.
The video featured excited taunting of Mr. Hussein by hooded Shiite guards. Passed around from cellphone to cellphone on Sunday, the images had echoes of the videos Sunni militants take of beheadings.
“Yes, he was a dictator, but he was killed by a death squad,” said a Sunni Arab woman in western Baghdad who was too afraid to give her name. “What’s the difference between him and them?”
There was, of course, a difference. Mr. Hussein was a brutal dictator, while the Shiite organizers of the execution are members of the popularly elected Iraqi government that the United States helped put in place as an attempt to implant a democracy.
It was supposed to be a formal and solemn proceeding carried out by a dispassionate state. But the grainy recording of the execution’s cruel theater summed up what has become increasingly clear on the streets of the capital: that the Shiite-led government that assumed power in the American effort here is running the state under an undisguised sectarian banner.
The hanging was hasty. Laws governing its timing were bypassed, and the guards charged with keeping order in the chamber instead disrupted it, shouting Shiite militia slogans.
It was a degrading end for a vicious leader, and an ominous beginning for the new Iraq. The Bush administration has already scaled back its hopes for a democracy here. But as the Iraqi government has become ever more set on protecting its Shiite constituency, often at the expense of the Sunni minority, the goal of stopping the sectarian war seems to be slipping out of reach.
“We speak about the crimes of Saddam Hussein, but now here we are behaving in the same way,” said Alaa Makki, a prominent Sunni politician. “We fear that nothing has been changed. On the contrary, we feel it is going in a worse direction.”
After the invasion, Sunni Arabs, bitter at losing their place, refused to take part in Iraq’s first elections, allowing Shiites and Kurds to sweep to power. Americans here spent the following months persuading the Shiites to let the Sunnis back in.
The idea, at the time, was that involving Sunnis in politics would drain the insurgency of its violence. Instead, the violence got worse, and in February, the long-abused Shiites struck back, using the force of the state ministries and agencies that they now control.
Now, American officials are pressing Iraqi leaders, both Sunni and Shiite, to reconcile and have made it a central demand for continued support of the Iraqi government. But the prospects for mutual agreement seem ever more distant.
“I can’t think of any good reason for any level-minded person to be interested in reconciliation,” one secular Sunni politician said.
That unwillingness, shared by most of the Shiite political elite, is a serious challenge to any new American strategy proposal that President Bush may announce soon.
Also a challenge to the emerging Bush strategy is the Joint Chiefs, who are apparently more in touch with the political reality in Iraq today than the White House, as they have been making the case that more American troops means more violence:
The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.
Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.
But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.
The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.
At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq -- including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.
The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.
The informal but well-armed Shiite militias, the Joint Chiefs have also warned, may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn -- then reemerge and retake the streets of Baghdad and other cities.
Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad -- could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.
The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.
In the coming weeks Congress must ask the tough questions of this failed Administration, and have them explain in plain simple English how they hope to navigate the terrible political reality of Iraq today. I reprint something I wrote a few weeks ago:
When the President makes his grand announcement about a "new way forward" in Iraq early next year, it is going to be critical that we judge him not on whether it is a new strategy, but whether it is a better one, one that can plausibly achieve its objectives. For example, what exactly are the troops going to do in Iraq when they get there? And if this is still a war, as the President describes, who is the enemy and how we will our troops engage and defeat them? Is the enemy the Iranian-backed Shiite militias? The Saudi-backed Sunni insurgents? Al Qaeda itself, a small but growing presence in the West? Maliki's government, partners with the Shiite militias? The Saudis, who say they will intervene militarily if the Sunni Arabs continue to be targeted by Shiite militias? And if the troops are going in as peacekeepers and not warriors, shouldn't we say that, and admit this is a failed occupation and not a war?
As has been said by many, there is no longer a military solution to our troubles in the Middle East. By rejecting the core recommendation of the ISG Report, an enhanced diplomatic track intent on making progress on the political and economic problems of the region, the Administration almost certainly guarenteed that whatever path they followed would be new but not better.
I end the year with a complex set of thoughts and feelings about the year just passed. Above all else I feel gratitude, and a sense of accomplishment. Our democracy worked. The American people, unhappy with their government, choose a different path. It was an empowering election, one that allowed a whole new generation of Americans to learn for themselves that in our system of government the people are sovereign. That at the end of the day our destiny is in our hands. That it is up to us. It is a vital lesson that I hope the Americans of the 21st century will take with them for the rest of their lives. It has been, and will be, true that our nation will only be as great, and good, as the American people fight for and demand. And this year they demanded more, much more.
The two main American ideological movements saw a year of accelerating change. The great conservative movement of the late 20th century, a modern political machine that I’ve described elsewhere as an Information Age Tammany Hall, finally in total ideological and political control of our government, so utterly failed at the basics of governing in these past few years that it must cause a total reappraisal of the entire conservative experiment, and brought about an end to what we call the era of conservative ascendancy in American politics.
The progressive movement, on the other hand, is clearly going through a long-overdue modernizing phase and is poised for a period of possible ascendency. We’ve seen the creation of vital new institutions and institutional capacities like America Votes, Blue Fund, Catalist, Center for American Progress, Change to Win, Copernicus, Democracy Alliance, Democracy Journal, Hispanic Strategy Center, Media Matters, Move On, New Politics Institute and many many blogs like Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo. These groups joined venerable and still productive progressive institutions like DLC-PPI, Emily's List, NDN and the Sierra Club. New elected leaders are are also emerging, with Cory Booker, Rahm Emanuel, Stephanie Herseth, Gavin Newsom, Barack Obama, Martin O’Malley, Deval Patrick, Kathleen Sebelius, Eliot Spitzer, Chris Van Hollen and Antonio Villaraigosa adding their modern voices to those of already established leaders like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Bill Richardson.
But above all else what is transforming the progressive movement is the return of average people to the core of our politics. Millions of Americans, disappointed by their government, became politically active in progressive and Democratic politics these last few years. Their hopes, their labor, their passion and their money fueled the defeat of the conservatives this year. It is a defining attribute of our age that an array of new technological and media tools are allowing many more Americans to participate in our politics in a more meaningful way, and allowing organizations much greater ability to manage and harness this latent activism for their ends. In the 21st century Americans will be much less “consumer” and “donor” and much more “participant” or “partner.” Whether progressive leaders can effectively harness this passion and energy with all these new tools, and whether with the great motivator of the Bush presidency waning our enthusiastic progressive partners will continue to give so much of themselves to the country and our movement, is one of the great questions of the day. On this matter I am optimistic, for too many people in recent years have directly experienced that their own civic participation - voting, volunteering, contributing, blogging - can change the course of history for them to just walk away from politics.
I also end the year angry and frustrated. The Bush Administration’s recent clumsy, confused and increasingly pathetic efforts to find a new approach to the great calamity of Iraq serves as a stark reminder of how badly we’ve been governed in this decade, and how much weaker he and his team have left this country than they found it. We leave the Bush era with very little progress having been made on the extraordinary set of governing challenges facing America at the dawn of the 21st century, and lots of new ones created by their historic mismanagement of our government. To me, these challenges taken together are the greatest set of challenges America has faced since the waging of WWII and the reconstruction in its aftermath. Think about what must get done – restoring broad-based prosperity in a more virulent age of globalization, finding a new foreign policy path after the neo-con disaster, tackling the structural budget imbalances left by years of out of control Republican spending and drastic revenue reductions, coming to terms with global climate change and the continued environmental degradation of our planet, completing the standing up of the Department of Homeland Security so it can begin to fulfill its critical mission, restoring the integrity of our political system after years of the most corrupt team to ever run our government, re-imagining our health care system, shoring up a broken pension system, better aligning our immigration system to the needs of our economy – the list goes on. But any one of these items on the list are big things, and yet we have to do all of them, simultaneously, and do them now – all the while trying to restore the nobility of the American experiment.
I end the year feeling that by tossing the failed conservatives from power, our nation has taken a giant step forward to accepting and meeting the obligations and challenges we face as we head further into the 21st century. It is only a single step among many that must be taken, and as proud as I am of the role I and the entire NDN family played in this important year, I sense that our most critical battles lie ahead, and that they will be much more difficult than what we have faced in the sad and disappointing Bush years. But as we’ve heard others say, I say “bring it on.”
Our neighbor and good friend Eric Felten writes a wonderful weekly column for the Saturday Wall Street Journal on spirits and cocktails. My wife Caitlin and I participated in a little experiment for today's column, creating our own and updated version - with a little help - of FDR's drink, the Old Fashioned. It is a lovely piece, with lots of photos, so if you can read it online or in the paper it will be worth the extra effort. Feedback on the FDR-inspired cocktail itself is welcome, of course.
While there is a great deal of big news today, I want to focus on a good holiday-inspired story buried deep in the NYTimes. The story is about an innovative new program, "Sigo," designed to help the 10% of those living in the US who are "unbanked:"
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Since coming to this country eight years ago, Jose Dimas has bristled at the $8 fee he often must pay to cash his paycheck. He stews over the $10 charge he faces whenever he wires $150 home to his parents in Mexico.
Daunted by the requirements to open a bank account, Mr. Dimas had long kept his savings hidden in his apartment, and had worried that his money would be stolen.
But now Mr. Dimas, 32, a food preparer at a catering company, has a new tool that has eased his discomfort with all things financial. It is a special debit card, provided not by a bank but by a nonprofit worker center here, enabling hundreds of immigrants without checking accounts or credit cards to keep their cash somewhere safer than beneath their mattresses. The card also makes it easier to shop at stores as well as online.
“This card is better for me for a lot of situations,” Mr. Dimas said. “You don’t have to pay those big charges to send money back to Mexico. And it will be much safer. I don’t like keeping my money in my home. Someone could go steal the money.”
The worker center, called New Labor, normally focuses on preaching about worker solidarity and safety, but after seeing all the hassles that immigrants face with finances, it pioneered the new debit cards. In a survey of 480 immigrants who were members of New Labor and similar worker centers, 47 percent said they had no bank accounts.
Since November, New Labor has provided cards to 200 immigrant members, including some who are here illegally. Three other centers — in Hempstead, N.Y., Chicago and Los Angeles — have begun offering the cards as well, and organizers say they hope to make them available to tens of thousands of immigrants at 140 worker centers nationwide within the next few years.
Several financial experts said the new debit cards — named “Sigo,” combining the Spanish word for “yes” and the English “go” — are an ideal tool for 30 million workers, both foreign-born and native, who lack bank accounts and often face high check-cashing fees and frustrating obstacles in paying bills.
Sigo cards can also help so-called “unbanked” immigrants develop financial sophistication and eventually move into the banking system, these experts said, perhaps to obtain a mortgage or small business loan.
“It’s not just about reducing your financial costs and making your financial life easier, it also helps give you opportunities to get ahead,” said Jennifer Tescher, director of the Center for Financial Services Innovation in Chicago, which provided a grant to develop the program. “It saves you time and makes more products and services available to you.”
I hope anyone reading this story who might be able to help accelerate the adoption of this program across the country will contact the people in the piece and offer their assistance.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post today, "Why We Need More Troops in Iraq," Joe Lieberman lays out a plan for Iraq that presages where the Bush Administration will likely end up with their own "way forward" plan in January. No matter where you come down in this debate, it is worth reading Lieberman's argument in its totality. An excerpt:
I've just spent 10 days traveling in the Middle East and speaking to leaders there, all of which has made one thing clearer to me than ever: While we are naturally focused on Iraq, a larger war is emerging. On one side are extremists and terrorists led and sponsored by Iran, on the other moderates and democrats supported by the United States. Iraq is the most deadly battlefield on which that conflict is being fought. How we end the struggle there will affect not only the region but the worldwide war against the extremists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.
Because of the bravery of many Iraqi and coalition military personnel and the recent coming together of moderate political forces in Baghdad, the war is winnable. We and our Iraqi allies must do what is necessary to win it.
The American people are justifiably frustrated by the lack of progress, and the price paid by our heroic troops and their families has been heavy. But what is needed now, especially in Washington and Baghdad, is not despair but decisive action -- and soon.
In the last few months on this blog I've tried hard to help all of us come to a better understanding of what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East so we are more likely to come up with not just a new way forward but a better one. Lieberman makes an important argument in his piece, one that needs to be considered and debated. I'll start by looking at the argument in his first paragraph:
While we are naturally focused on Iraq, a larger war is emerging. On one side are extremists and terrorists led and sponsored by Iran, on the other moderates and democrats supported by the United States. Iraq is the most deadly battlefield on which that conflict is being fought. How we end the struggle there will affect not only the region but the worldwide war against the extremists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.
While there is much I agree with in this op-ed, the logic of this first graph is problematic,and I think further indicates how exhausted the "war on terror" frame has become to understanding what is happening in the Middle East today. The Senator asserts that our main adversary in the Middle East are those forces aligned with Iran, and that it is the next step in the "war on terror" begun in 2001. The problem with this argument is that in Iraq these forces - Iranian-backed Shiites and Al-Qaeda/Sunni and Baathist insurgents - are on opposite sides and are in many areas battling each other. To lump Al Qaeda, Iraqi Sunni insurgents and the various groups supported by Iran and Iran itself into a single category labeled "radicals, extremists, Islamic fundamentalists, the 9/11 terrorists." is so simplistic in its formulation that it is misleading, and continues the kind of black/white thinking that has been such an important contributor to the mess we are now facing in the Middle East (recall that Iran helped us defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, or that Sunni Al Qaeda believes the the Shiite faith of Iran is an illegitimate form of Islam).
Lieberman is right that the decisions we make as a nation in the next few months about our strategy for the Middle East are going to be important, even historic ones. There is little doubt that we need to have a big conversation about what to do, and it appears the Democrats are ready to ensure that Congress is leading this debate. But what is critical is that we get to a better and more accurate place about what is happening over there, and what our options are; at the heart of that effort will be to come to a new and more accurate understanding of the complex political and religious realities of the Middle East today.
A good place to start is to reject the overly simplistic thinking articulated by Lieberman in this piece.
Before his meeting on the Middle East in Crawford today, I hope the President gets a chance to read two pieces from the NYTimes this morning (I know this violates the no newspaper rule in Bushworld) that further document the political nature of the challenges we face in the Middle East today, and the limits of what our military can do:
BAGHDAD, Dec. 27 — The car parked outside was almost certainly a tool of the Sunni insurgency. It was pocked with bullet holes and bore fake license plates. The trunk had cases of unused sniper bullets and a notice to a Shiite family telling them to abandon their home.
“Otherwise, your rotten heads will be cut off,” the note read.
The soldiers who came upon the car in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad were part of a joint American and Iraqi patrol, and the Americans were ready to take action. The Iraqi commander, however, taking orders by cellphone from the office of a top Sunni politician, said to back off: the car’s owner was known and protected at a high level.
For Maj. William Voorhies, the American commander of the military training unit at the scene, the moment encapsulated his increasingly frustrating task — trying to build up Iraqi security forces who themselves are being used as proxies in a spreading sectarian war. This time, it was a Sunni politician — Vice Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie — but the more powerful Shiites interfered even more often.
“I have come to the conclusion that this is no longer America’s war in Iraq, but the Iraqi civil war where America is fighting,” Major Voorhies said.
A second story describes the approach Iran has taken to increase its influence in the region, an approach very different from the one America has taken:
DAMASCUS, Syria — Early next year, Syria’s first domestically manufactured cars are scheduled to roll off an assembly line. They will have an Iranian name, be produced in a plant partly financed by a state-controlled Iranian car company and be made of parts from Iran.
Not long after that, Syria hopes to open two new multimillion-dollar wheat silos, add 1,200 new buses in Damascus, open another Iranian car factory in the north and start operating a cement plant — all in partnership with Iran. The two countries are also talking about building an oil refinery, opening a joint bank, constructing housing, developing electric generators and, someday, linking their rail systems through Iraq.
As the White House begins to rethink its strategy for dealing with the Middle East, particularly how to calm the chaos in Iraq, pressure to try to re-engage Syria has grown. Some Western analysts contend that Syria, with a government more pragmatic than ideological, can be pried away from Iran’s influence and convinced that its long-term interests lie instead with the West.
But Washington has spent years trying to isolate Syria, while Iran has for decades moved to entwine itself with Syria on many levels — political, military, economic and religious.
Iran is a country of many power centers with different pools of money, from funds controlled by grand ayatollahs of Qum, to those in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards. They may not all be directed by the central government, but they all help promote Iranian influence in Syria.
As a result, some Western diplomats in Iran say that, even if the United States tried, it might be impossible to extricate Syria from Iran’s orbit.
“Iranians have been working harder for longer than we realized,” said a European diplomat based in Damascus who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Syrian officials. “They have stronger links going back more years than we were aware of.”
Syrian officials are extremely sensitive about the relationship with Iran. Part of the reason is fear of igniting sectarian tensions in Syria, which is about 80 percent Sunni Muslim. The president and his inner circle are from a minority Shiite sect, the Alawites, and Iran is Shiite.
While the Syrian power brokers have decided for practical reasons to align with Iran, political analysts in Syria say the government remains fearful of alienating the Sunni majority, especially amid widespread rumors that Iran is trying to convert Sunni Syrians to Shiism.
Concern among Sunnis is heightened because Syria is a major destination for Iranian religious tourists; as many as 500,000 a year visit Shiite sites in Syria. Iranian organizations have spent millions of dollars restoring, enlarging and maintaining Shiite shrines in Syria, from the center of Damascus, the capital, to the north, near the Turkish border.
Iran’s efforts to spread its influence around the Middle East have increased in the last two or three years, regional analysts say. They have been propelled by rising oil prices and American policies in the region, which have neutralized Iran’s enemies, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“Iran has used this affluence of oil revenues over the last five or six years to play a beautiful game, from their perspective,” said Osama T. Elansari, a director of the Dubai International Financial Exchange who lives in Syria.
Iran’s efforts have often been most evident in Lebanon, where it has set up an informal economy in the south. It needs only to provide money to its proxy, Hezbollah, which has a construction arm, called Jihad al Bina, and a vast network of social services that dole out money and build schools and hospitals.
According to some estimates, Iran has spent tens of millions a month over the years in Lebanon. Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, said he had no idea how much money Iran had sent into Lebanon because it had gone via Syria, not through the central bank.
This story follows a very similar story yesterday about the growing influence of Iran in Afghanistan. Kudos to the Times from their strong reporting on the Middle East in recent months.
After so many years of mismanagement, our country needs to have a big conversation about our long-term strategy to bring democracy and prosperity to the Middle East. The incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden apparently is going to do his best to use the Senate to lead this conversation. Find stories about his plans, which begin with hearings the week of January 9th, in the Times and Post today. The Times piece has an interesting insight into how the Administration has yet to fully grasp what losing their allies in Congress means for their management of our foreign policy:
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday rejected a troop increase for Iraq, foreshadowing what could be a contentious fight between the Bush administration and Congress.
Mr. Biden, a Democrat, announced that he would begin hearings on Iraq on Jan. 9 and expected high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to appear.
As President Bush flew to his Texas ranch on Tuesday, a spokesman for the National Security Council urged the senator to wait for Mr. Bush to present his new Iraq policy next month before passing judgment.
“President Bush will talk soon to our troops, the American people and Iraqis about a new way forward for Iraq that will lead to a democratic, unified country that can govern, defend and sustain itself,” said Gordon Johndroe, the council spokesman.
The Times also has a story about the growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan, another good read for those trying to get a better understanding of the region's complex politics.
Senators Brown and Dorgan have a thoughtful op-ed in the Post today about the challenge globalization poses to America. There is little question that how America once again offers a strategy to ensure that capital, corporations and people succeed in the global economy of the 21st century is one of the greatest governing challenges we face today.
NDN has been offering a great deal of thinking about all this over the past 18 months, available at www.ndn.org/globalization.
The Times has another story today that shows how important the underlying Sunni-Shiite struggle is to understanding what is happening in Iraq today:
As the United States debates what to do in Iraq, this country’s Shiite majority has been moving toward its own solution: making the capital its own.
Large portions of Baghdad have become Shiite in recent months, as militias press their fight against Sunni militants deeper into the heart of the capital, displacing thousands of Sunni residents. At least 10 neighborhoods that a year ago were mixed Sunni and Shiite are now almost entirely Shiite, according to residents, American and Iraqi military commanders and local officials.
For the first years of the war, Sunni militants were dominant, forcing Shiites out of neighborhoods and systematically killing bakers, barbers and trash collectors, who were often Shiites. But starting in February, after the bombing of a shrine in the city of Samarra, Shiite militias began to strike back, pushing west from their strongholds and redrawing the sectarian map of the capital, home to a quarter of Iraq’s population.
The Shiite-dominated government publicly condemns violence against Sunnis and says it is trying to stop the militias that carry it out. But the attacks have continued unabated, and Sunnis have grown suspicious.
Plans for a new bridge that would bypass a violent Sunni area in the east, and a proposal for land handouts in towns around Baghdad that would bring Shiites into what are now Sunni strongholds underscored these concerns.
Sunni political control in Baghdad is all but nonexistent: Of the 51 members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, which runs the city’s services, just one is Sunni.
In many ways, the changes are a natural development. Shiites, a majority of Iraq’s population, were locked out of the ruling elite under Saddam Hussein and now have power that matches their numbers.
The danger, voiced by Sunni Arabs, is that an emboldened militant fringe will conduct broader killings without being stopped by the government, or, some fear, with its help. That could, in turn, draw Sunni countries into the fight and lead to a protracted regional war, precisely the outcome that Americans most fear.
"Older politicians will have to get beyond their ideological blinders to recognize the opportunity waiting for any candidate or political party that can embrace both halves of the Millennial era civic ethos paradox."