Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Right Wing Demagogues and their intellectual bankruptcy

Dear Dr. (Victor Davis) Hanson:

Last week, I caught a snippet of Rush Limbaugh's show on the radio, and the part I heard went something like this: "The Left has succeeded in killing Terri Schiavo, and now they are going to move on to California to try to save Scott Peterson's life..." In your on-line column, you tried to explain the continued existence of the United Nations as "...appeasement of the U.N. by the left-wing of the Democratic Party." You described U.N. diplomats as "the frauds who love to come to New York to spout off to the hyper-liberal press..."

Comments like that remind me of the old Westerns when a drunken rabble rouser in the local saloon would provoke a lynch mob to march to the jail to try to string up the helpless soul locked up awaiting trial. Or, in real life, the Leo Frank lynching which spawned the Anti Defamation League. Comments like that are outrageous falsehoods which depend in part on attempting to ascribe terrible depredations against the favored group ("us," "real Americans," "Christians," "English speakers,") inflicted by disfavored outsiders ("the stranger in the jail," "the Jew who murdered little Mary Phagan," "illegal immigrants").

My question to you is this: why do so-called conservative commentators or pundits rely so much on vilifying a group which does not exist except in the imaginations of their audience? There is no coherent organization or group called "The Left" any more than there is a coherent organization called "White People" with a unified agenda. To determine if a commentator is a demagogue, simply substitute the phrase "White People" for whatever label they use ("Blacks," "hyper liberal press" "The Left") and so forth.

If Rush Limbaugh had said "White People" murdered Terri Schiavo, he would have been accurate, at least insofar as the decision to allow her to die was concerned. As far as I know, everyone involved in the Florida drama was white- Terri's family, the doctors, judges, and so forth. But how do you think his listeners would have reacted if Limbaugh's label had been appended to include themselves? They would have cast Rush aside as if he had been soiled laundry, and deservedly so. Wouldn't you agree that when commentators like you and Mr. Limbaugh rely on incitement through the use of pejorative labels rather than on logical reasoning grounded in fact, they are demonstrating the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of their arguments?

James Finkelstein
Albany, Georgia

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Why Victor Davis Hanson is wrong about Iraq

April 3, 2005 to VICTOR DAVIS HANSON http://victorhanson.com/

Dear Mr. Hanson,

Recently the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have made the news because their recruiting efforts have been falling short of the numbers required to meet our present commitments at home, in South Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Formerly, many of the enlistees in the National Guard and the reserves came from active duty personnel after they had finished their service, and drills were only one weekend a month, plus some time in the Summer. This pool is slowly drying up because many soldiers and Marines returning from active duty in Iraq have refused to sign up, knowing that doing so will mean they will be immediately activated and sent right back to war. Some Pentagon analysts have said that unless we withdraw from Iraq, we will need a draft to make up the shortfall both in active duty troops and combat ready reserves. Meanwhile, Congress has just approved a supplemental "emergency" defense budget bill of over $80 billion, most of which is for items which are not unexpected emergencies that could not have been included in the regular budget submitted in January. So instead of an annual deficit which is declining, as predicted by the Congressional Budget Office as recently as January of last year (from $477 billion to $362 billion) we have a national budget heading for a fiscal disaster, which will get only worse if earlier tax cuts are made permanent.

My point is this: much of the debate of Iraq has focused on issues such as whether or not the President lied or the intelligence community somehow failed or was co-opted to provide hyped reports of weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq. Lately, it has been framed as those who favor and those who supposedly oppose the "Bush doctrine" of promoting democracy in the region, with Afghanistan and Iraq as supposedly being the first concrete successes of this "doctrine." I put "Bush doctrine" in quotes because it looks like an after the fact justification- I don't recall seeing any mention of it prior to March of 2003. I never saw the issue that way, and I am puzzled as to why otherwise intelligent commentators and analysts have framed the debate to be whether or not producing a nascent democracy in Iraq and creating the impetus for democracy in other countries in the region are worthy goals. Those who support the Bush administration's actions in and around Iraq- and I would assume you would place yourself in that category- assume without asking that those who oppose the administration's efforts also oppose the results of President Bush's decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

It's only been two years, but my recollection is that the objections to a preemptive invasion and occupation of Iraq were never framed as objections to the goal of democratizing the region. I don't recall any person- Republican, Democrat, right wing, left wing- ever saying that having a free and democratic Iraq was not a worthwhile goal. I would be interested in reading any statements issued prior to March of 2003 from any American elected official (presumably a Democrat or Senator Hegel) or prominent commentator who opposed policies intended to increase democracy and freedom (especially for women and religious minorities) in the Middle East. I don't think you'll find any.

There are two reasons for this: first, and most obviously, one would look in vain to find public mention of democratizing Iraq and/or the Middle East as a primary rationale for the war from President Bush, Vice President Cheney, (then) National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice, or (then) Secretary of State Colin Powell during the period from 2002, during the height of the mid term Congressional campaign, through March of 2003. Their public pronouncements all related to an alleged immediate military threat from Iraq via weapons of mass destruction- nuclear, chemical, and biological. So the opponents of a preemptive invasion had no reason to debate an issue never raised. Second, the opposition to a preemptive invasion was never framed in terms of an invasion not being successful in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime or in terms of opposing efforts to create democracies in the Middle East. For whatever it is worth, those opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq assumed that Hussein did have programs in place to acquire and/or build weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Given Iraq's history since 1979, that seemed like a safe bet; I know I would have put my money on weapons or labs to build them being found. Opponents of the war also assumed that Saddam would be quickly toppled and the Baath regime swept away if America used military force in Iraq.

The debate was never framed about democracy and freedom for ordinary Iraqis because the Bush Administration hadn't brought up the subject as a basis for going to war. Those who opposed the war, including me, opposed it for different reasons. One reason was the terrible precedent it set to go to war against a country because there was a possibility or potential that the country might be acquiring certain weapons and might intend one day to use them against the country which was preemptively invading (in this case, the United States). Using those criteria, we could have gone to war against North Korea and Iran without a doubt, as well as every Islamic country in the region which was acquiring modern weapons- Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, being a few. And using those criteria, many countries in the world would be justified in going to war against the United States, China would be justified in invading Tiawan, India and Pakistan would be justified in invading the other, and so forth.

A second reason is that it made no sense to go to war, and divert our resources to that war, against the country in the region which was the least involved in international terrorism (Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia were far worse), and which was most likely to be anathema to Osama bin Laden. Iraq was the most westernized and secular country in the region- women could dress in Western fashion and hold positions of authority, for instance. Although Saddam fancied himself a successar to Saladin in terms of uniting the Arab peoples, he was making no headway in that area (his attempts to target Israel with SCUD's during the 1991 Gulf War were unsuccessful in getting Palestinian support and ultimately resulted in a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait), and years of sanctions had grossly weakened Iraq, both in terms of its military and the infrastructure. Moreover, unlike our situations with Iran and North Koriea, we had the capability of flying over Iraq. We even bombed sites suspected of being used to develop WMD's, as Clinton ordered near Tikrit around December of 1998, causing Congressional Republican leaders such as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay to decry the attack and cite it as one more reason why Clinton's impeachment was necessary.

So we already had economic sanctions in place; we had the country surrounded militarily, with troops in both Kuwait and Turkey; we had "no fly zones" over Iraq where that country could not even use its own air force over its own territory; our Air Force flew over the entire country at will, destroying any radar installation which lit up our aircraft and on occasion doing precise bombing strikes (i.e. Iraq's intelligence headquarters in Baghdad after the foiled assassination plot against former President Bush in 1993); and we had no evidence that Saddam was involved in Al Qaida's attacks on September 11, 2001. We also had an active military presence in Afghanistan to try to locate the head of the Taliban and the top leadership of Al Qaida, from which we ultimately diverted our resources when we invaded Iraq and spent months in 2003 hunting down Saddam and his leadership. And, although the public did not know it at the time, our military was not properly equipped or trained for a long term occupation and rebuilding of Iraq.

A third reason is that when a nation goes to war it is not an act similar to performing precise surgery on a patient with known costs and known consequences. War is chaotic, it has unintended and far reaching consequences, and it is always costly- costly in terms of human lives lost, lives ruined, and families' lives tragically affected. Costly in terms of money- we're at over $200 billion at the moment and no end in sight. Costly in terms of our national security- we have destabilized Iraq as a certainty, with no telling what effects on other countries in the region. Costly in terms of the deterioration of our military- we have used and abused our national guard and our reserves, and the effects will be felt for at least a decade or more. The quality and quantity of those we will end up with in our active duty military will be far less than what we started with in March of 2003 when the invasion occurred, possibly requiring a draft to meet projected needs. Costly in terms of loss of our moral authority, as news of officially sanctioned torture and murder have surfaced. Costly in terms of our lost standing in the international community- right now, there is probably no question that in polls in virtually every other country, including our NATO allies, the most despised nation in the world would be the United States. Costly in terms of nuclear proliferation- we have provided a real impetus to other nation states to acquire and deploy nuclear weapons, knowing that doing so will protect them against an Iraqi style invasion. Costly in terms of the increasing rancor of the political divisions in the United States. Costly in terms of the loss of civil liberties for certain human beings in American custody, including some American citizens.

In short, the costs of the preemptive invasion and occupation of Iraq far outweigh the gains. And the gains may in any event turn out to have been short term and ephemeral. The "Bush doctrine" will be an abject failure abroad if no other democracies are formed, the region continues to be in turmoil, our military invasion and occupation continues to increase recruiting for fanatics filled with hate for the United States, and Iraq ends up as a dictatorship (the Weimar Republic being one obvious example in history) or as a theocratic oligarchy aligned with Iran. It already is a failure at home in terms of the fiscal integrity, the credibility, and the moral integrity of our government. Republicans in control of the levers of power have moved towards increased secrecy and lack of accountability for acts up to and including torture and murder. They have also used political power to maintain Republican control of government by enacting or proposing unprecedented redistricting in between censuses (censi?) (i.e. Texas and Georgia) and by enacting policies to frustrate voters (Georgia's new photo ID provisions to combat a non-existent problem, for instance).

My conclusion is that the Bush Administration was wrong to have invaded Iraq and that our country is wrong in staying there. Wrong morally and wrong strategically for our nation's short term and long term interests. And I don't understand why you and other Bush supporters attempt to frame the debate as being between those who support democracy and those who are supposedly against it. The debate is whether the costs outweigh the gains, and as glad as I may be to see Iraqis free and voting- if only for a short while, so they will know what it felt like- there were other far less costly means to have achieved the same goal, had that goal been the true objective of President Bush and his top advisors when we went to war. The debate now should be whether America's military staying in Iraq will be better for us and for Iraqis than setting a timetable for promptly removing American troops- six months at the outside. Moreover, this debate is not an all or nothing debate- I have seen no one suggest that peace can only be achieved (I almost wrote "maintained") if peacekeeping troops are American, as opposed to Jordanian, Egyptian, or United Nations peace keepers.

For my part, I would like to see common sense American policies at home and abroad designed to increase democracy and increase freedom (not necessarily the same thing), including freedom for women, freedom for religious and ethnic minorities, freedom of speech, freedom from torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and so forth. I want to see prompt action- unilaterally if no one else will act- to stop genocide in places like Iraq in the 1980's, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990's, and currently, in the Sudan. I don't want the use of America's military to be a first option to accomplish any of those goals, because unlike the "use it or lose it" philosophy I have regarding physical exercise or free speech, when it comes to the military, using it is losing it, whether it be lives, equipment, or the morale necessary for future recruitment.

I would also like to see a draft reinstituted- a draft limited to the sons, daughters, and, if of age, grandchildren of the President, Vice President, members of his cabinet, members of Congress, and the CEO's and board members of the top 100 defense contractors. A draft that would ensure that in any conflict, those children and grandchildren would serve in combat units exposed to enemy fire. For the moment, I would excuse the children or nearest relatives of any pundits or commentators who propose or justify going to war, since they don't actually make decisions; they are only apologists and enablers for the real decision makers.

Please note, I haven't told you anything about myself, although an internet search would probably turn up information that may or may not surprise you. I don't want to make it easy for you to respond with a facile ad hominem attack as you did recently to the Cal Ph.D. who criticized you. And I have made no mention of you personally- I didn't know you existed until a few weeks ago, when a local paper decided to put you in William Safire's spot on the editorial page. But I do think that your positions about the war in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are too simplistic, and your supporting arguments are so flawed that you would not prevail in an open public debate with a neutral moderator.

Sincerely yours,
James Finkelstein
Albany, Georgia