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I was walking up

I was walking up toward Dupont Circle from the Starbucks at Connecticut and N Street this afternoon when I walked past three neatly-dressed older men -- one Korean, another perhaps a Brit -- standing outside a building on Connecticut Avenue. They had that slightly awkward but still dignified look of important folks waiting for the driver to pull up or just hawking about trying to decide where to get dinner. Who knows? Anyway, I noticed they were all wearing name tags. And whenever I see that I always try to get a look to see who the people are, what the organization is, and so forth. What did I see?


You've never seen longer faces.

Now to some really interesting information from today's uber-insider-connected Nelson Report. We may be near a breakthrough on the Korea stand-off. No, not between North Korea and the United States, a breakthrough in the tense stand-off between the State Department, the Pentagon and the OVP.

Now here's the scoop. And bear in mind there's a good measure of scuttlebutt and informed speculation mixed into this report. But I made some phone calls myself on this matter, and there does seem to be something to this. The word is that Dick Cheney may be gravitating toward tactical alliance with Colin Powell over Korea. Cheney seems to be thinking that as fun as regime change in Pyongyang might be, the US is focused on Iraq and then later on Iran. And he doesn't want Korea blowing up while the US has important business to get done in the Persian Gulf. (Even global hegemons have to set priorities!) A Cheney trip to the region in April could be the catalyst for a shift in policy.

Could Al Gore really

Could Al Gore really have done a better job getter France on board? Germany? This is how the question is being framed today. At least by some people I read and talk to. My friend Mickey Kaus says he doubts any more diplomatic finessing could have gotten the French on board.

I don't necessarily disagree with this point. But, frankly, I think it's beside the point. Or perhaps just misses the point.

The issue here isn't that France opposes us. That doesn't bother me particularly. The real point is that everyone opposes us. Everyone.

And don't give me any chatter about moral clarity and Churchill holding off the Huns alone at Dover. This isn't that kind of situation. We're in international affairs not just for today but for the long haul. And our political leadership in the world community matters profoundly.

If we like, we can kid ourselves and believe that "old Europe" in the guise of France and Germany oppose us but "new Europe" supports us. But if we look at the question honestly we have to confess that this isn't true. The populations all across Europe oppose what we're doing. A collection of governments in Eastern Europe and on Europe's periphery support us, for a variety of reasons. Some do it because of an intra-European powerplay. Others for sincere belief that we're doing the right thing. Others for more mercenary reasons. In the short term, the reasons for their support don't matter so much. But if we think we can trade our old allies in for these new ones, then it matters a great deal that these governments are doing this in spite of the wishes of their populations, not because of them. One or two elections, and no more 'new Europe.' Fundamentally, alliances of democracies are founded -- like democracies -- on popular opinion.

Again, people say the French are lame or opportunistic for aggrandizing themselves by trying to rally a world-wide coalition in opposition to us. But look more closely at this point. The real heart of the matter isn't their opportunism, if that's what it is. Opportunists will always arise to exploit an exploitable situation. The real issue is that the world stage is now ripe for such exploitation. We are supremely isolated right now. That's the issue we need to contend with. When we can't get penny-ante states to give us their votes on the Security Council that should tell us something: not something about the rightness of policies, one way or another, but about the depth of our international isolation. The fact that France may be taking advantage of the situation on the international stage is a subsidiary problem.

Next, to the United Nations. One hears that the United Nations was basically a wrecked or never-functioning institution. So the costs of putting it out of its misery are not so great. I'm not so sour on the UN. But what worries me here is not principally the UN. NATO sidestepped the UN in 1999 during the Kosovo war because of Russian intransigence. And I was happy to see NATO do it. Anti-UN types now see this as a bit of internationalist hypocrisy. But again, it's not the UN I'm worried about. It's the destruction of NATO that's the issue here.

By seeking to rend NATO, the administration has demonstrated that poorly-functioning international institutions aren't what it is opposed to, but rather ALL international institutions.

Over the last day

Over the last day I've received a number of emails saying 'thanks' or 'finally' or 'you finally wised up' for changing my position on the war. The passage those folks were referring to was the last in the previous post in which I said ...

The pros and cons of handling Iraq have never been separable from how you do it, the costs you rack up in the doing of it, calculated against the gains you'll get in having accomplished it. At this point, we truly have the worst case scenario on the international stage. And I think that those costs now outweigh the gains.
The last line is the one that generated the emails. Now, I'm afraid I may disappoint those who think I've suddenly changed my stripes on this issue. I looked back at what I wrote in my long Washington Monthly article on the subject and I agree with pretty much all of it. I don't think I've really changed my position. But then people who write and make arguments for a living always say that. So I'll explain to you what I think and why I think it and you can make up your own mind.

A number of people have written in and said that I never should have uttered pro-war sentiments knowing that it would be this president and this group of advisors who were going to implement the plan. Frankly, I don't agree. The role of someone who does what I do -- writes and constructs arguments and opinions for a living -- is to look at as many of the facts as possible and then give readers an honest opinion. The role isn't to try to game the system. That's just a more high-minded form of dishonesty.

When I first wrote about this issue I came to the opinion that Saddam really was a threat to our interests and that in our long-running dispute with him, time was on his side, not on ours. Many people are now championing the merits of robust containment. But if you think back to a couple years ago the whole point was how our sanctions against Saddam were killing all those Iraqi children. Another point was that containing Saddam required us to garrison troops in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates and that made for a fertile breeding ground for bin Ladenism. Even now, I think it's right to say that Saddam is contained. But how long can we contain him? We have 250,000 troops on his borders. It's taken that much to squeeze this grudging level of compliance out of the regime. How long can we maintain that? At how much expense? At how much diplomatic and cultural collateral damage, as we managed to build up during the first decade of containment?

I don't say these are in themselves justifications for war. But it is not enough simply to say you oppose war. That statement brings with it a responsibility to say what the proper policy is or would be. If you think Saddam is contained now then it's incumbent on you to say how you imagine perpetuating that state of affairs into the future. And what the costs will be to your policy.

When I first wrote on this issue at length what I said was that this was an issue we really did need to deal with (probably militarily), that it was a running wound, but that the hawks who run foreign policy in this administration were most likely to do it in a way that would lead to disaster.

Now, where are we now?

When you have given careful thought to a question of war and peace, you need to be very careful not to lose heart or change your mind just when things are coming to a head. Things always get dicey just before the trigger is finally pulled. That's just in the nature of things. And I've tried to resist that pressure or temptation myself. But at a certain point it simply becomes clear that the damage the administration has done outweighs the gains we might possibly amass by invading Iraq and toppling this regime.

We are at that point. I'm less worried about the immediate repercussions in the Middle East than in the wider world, where we are as quickly as we can trashing a world security system that decades of statesmanship have built up. That's worth more than can possibly be gained in Iraq.

That still doesn't answer the question of what we should do now. And you've probably noted in these pages over the past three weeks that that's a question I've been wrestling with. As I said here, I think it's very clear that we would do this differently if we had a chance. (To disagree with that proposition, I think you have to be in the camp of those who think trashing our alliances wasn't a necessary cost but a positive good. In other words, you would have to be a political appointee at the Pentagon or the OVP.) But what do we do now, given that all this damage has already been done? I find that a much more difficult question.

People reflexively make light of arguments about 'credibility'. And it is a slippery slope. But if we just gracelessly and abruptly climbed-down from our position right now, that really would have very serious consequences both for us and for the entire world order. How many other rogue states or Muslim terrorists would be prompted to test our apparently empty will in other parts of the world?

The administration has played this in a way that the costs of changing course really are high. Very high. Given the disaster the administration is barrelling towards, however, I think we need some other solution, some way to reconfigure our policy so as to be able to declare 'victory' and have it be credible and not have it lead us back to an even worse situation than the one we started in.

Almost a year ago now I wrote the following in my article in the Washington Monthly ...

The same goes for the State Department's efforts to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. The hawks tend to view weapons inspections as a contemptible joke, a half-measure that will bog us down with kibitzing at the U.N. and rob us of our justification for invasion. Properly done, however, inspections are not a way to avoid war but to build the ground work for it. Before a single soldier hits the ground in Iraq, the U.S. should demand a virtually air-tight inspection regime--not the half-measures the U.N. is currently negotiating with Saddam. Our European allies would oppose this strenuously, as will Russia and China. But it is well worth drawing them into that conversation, because the force and logic of our argument is quite strong. Once the concept of inspections is granted, the need to make them effective is difficult to refute. If Saddam were to accept a truly robust inspections regime--one which would allow the inspectors to roam the country more or less at will--we will have achieved our aim of neutralizing the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But, of course, when he doesn't agree--and he won't--then we will have forced our allies to confront the reality of Iraqi intransigence head-on. Some may still oppose our imminent military action. But others might join us, and that will make us stronger.
I still agree with those points. And I think the answer is that we have to wait. I feel confident that an able foreign policy mind could come up with a tack that would allow us to secure our vital objectives and yet work our way out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. I'm not sure what that grand gesture is. And absent such a grand gesture I think we have to resort to a policy of coercive inspections, start giving the inspectors quality intelligence data (not garbage) and begin whittling down the Iraqis WMD capability one step at a time.

Will we get everything? No. That's very unlikely. But what really matters is nuclear weapons. And though I'm certain Saddam wants nukes, he pretty clearly doesn't have them now, and he won't be making any progress toward getting them as long as inspectors are there in force.

I think we need to pursue this goal for the next several months and keep ratcheting up the pressure, knowing that we may have to go to war at a later point, even when weather conditions and so forth aren't ideal. (One tack we might try -- and I mean this only half in jest -- is to tell particularly the French but also the Germans and the Chinese and the Russians that if they're so enamored with the current situation which has been brought about by an overwhelming display of American military might, they need to start footing their share of the bill.)

Is this a good solution? No. And I'm not certain how long we can sustain it. But I think, as I said yesterday, the gains we're going to make by doing this (and I still think they would be substantial) will be outweighed by the costs, even the costs entailed by shifting our policy. It's a very close call. But I owe you a straight-up answer. And that's it.

Having said all this, do I think there's much chance this will happen? No, I think we'll be at war in the next ten days. This is just my sense of what we should do.

While working away on

While working away on the soon-to-be-submitted final draft of the dissertation, I've been working on a new article about the hawks' 'grand plan' for the Middle East, of which Iraq is only the opening act. As part of the reporting for that piece, I spoke yesterday to a retired, high-level member of the US Intelligence community who specializes in the Middle East.

This is someone who has always been very sour on the idea of invading Iraq. And when we spoke yesterday, I asked him what struck me as the big question: What's your best guess for the near and medium-term repercussions of what we're about to do.

His answer, or at least part of it, surprised me. He didn't think the repercussions within the neighborhood -- i.e. in the neighboring Arab states -- would be nearly as good as the hawks believe but also not nearly as bad as many nay-sayers expect. No governments falling. And probably -- after a rough few months -- even that much change from the status quo ante.

His greatest worry was not in the neighborhood, but the world: the costs -- unreckonable to some degree -- of wrecking the international state system to get this done. The pros and cons of handling Iraq have never been separable from how you do it, the costs you rack up in the doing of it, calculated against the gains you'll get in having accomplished it. At this point, we truly have the worst case scenario on the international stage. And I think that those costs now outweigh the gains.

With Turkey so much

With Turkey so much in the news, let me make a few quick book recommendations for those who might be interested in reading more about the subject. If you're interested in finding out more about the Ottoman Empire and what came before the modern Turkish Republic, here are two good reads. First, there's The Ottoman Centuries by Lord Kinross. It's currently published in a big pulpy volume clearly intended to be a mainstay on bookstore shelves for decades to come. I will say that it is the best of the single volume narrative histories on the subject that I've read. I just thought it was a bit heavy on political doings, recitations of Sultans (the achilles heel of Ottoman history writing), and just generally grade B history writing.

If you're not up for reading a tome like Kinross's book, there is the exquisite Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Tradition by Norman Itzkowitz. At a bit more than one hundred pages, you can easily dash it off in one sitting. But it's elegantly written, marvelously concise, and provides an excellent overview of a whole epoch of Islamic history, as well as some crucial history of Turkey.

Finally, for the background of the origins of the modern Turkish state I don't think you can do much better than Andrew Mango's Ataturk, the most recent biography of the founder of the secular, westward-looking Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal.

At about a quarter-to-nine

At about a quarter-to-nine the president got a straight-up question. I don't have the transcript. But it was basically: Are we willing to allow the North Koreans to become a nuclear power? Are you starting to get concerned? (This is the "red-line" question.)

As I heard his answer it was: "It's an issue. I'm concerned." He then went on into a miscellany about diplomacy and allies.

Question number two tonight

Question number two tonight in the president's news conference was on the North Korea crisis. The answer was depressing. And the message was clear: we have no policy. The president wants help from the Chinese, South Koreans, Russians, Japanese, etc. etc. etc. Can anybody help? Does anyone have a policy we can borrow? Does anyone have another question? Next question.

Here's the quote of the day from today's Nelson Report ...

It would be difficult to exaggerate the growing mixture of anger, despair, disgust, and fear actuating the foreign policy community in Washington as the attack on Iraq moves closer, and the North Korea crisis festers with no coherent U.S. policy. We get the phone calls and e-mails from all over this Administration, Capitol Hill, the think tanks, and even fellow scribblers. We've never seen anything like it, and we've been here since 1966.
This is a bad situation, getting worse. And the unavoidable truth is that we don't have a policy and because of that we're letting it hang.

Heres a small but

Here's a small but important note on the inner-workings of the policy world. For the last two years Hans Riemer has headed up the Social Security Information Project at the Campaign for America's Future. A lot of people and a lot of hard work have gone into blunting and at least temporarily stymieing the Republican drive to privatize the Social Security system. (They've all been helped by the fact that the public -- cooked-polls notwithstanding -- simply doesn't want Social Security privatized.) But I don't think any single person -- or a lot of groups of people, for that mater -- did more to stem the tide than Hans.

His contribution has been that important.

That included mau-mauing the president's hopelessly stacked-deck Social Security Commission and a lot of other stuff ... working the press, organizing events, not letting the GOP run away from or lie about its pro-privatization positions during the last election.

Anyway, Hans is headed off to a new but as yet unannounced gig. So if you get a chance stop by the SSIP site and send him your appreciation. Or if you're a pension fund investment manager who wanted to start managing and drawing fees off that Social Security gold mine, drop him a line and bitch about how you can't buy that new vacation house.

Give a quick read

Give a quick read to Chris Suellentrop's piece from yesterday on Ken Pollack. Here's one of several good passages ...

Six months after The Threatening Storm's publication, however, Pollack's book reads as much like an indictment of the Bush administration's overeagerness to go to war as it does an endorsement of it. A more appropriate subtitle for the book would have been The Case for Rebuilding Afghanistan, Destroying al-Qaida, Setting Israel and Palestine on the Road to Peace, and Then, a Year or Two Down the Road After Some Diplomacy, Invading Iraq. In interviews and op-ed articles, Pollack himself still supports the war, saying that now is better than never. But it's fair to say that his book does not—or at least not Bush's path to it.
This point goes too often unmade.

At about 1020 PM

At about 10:20 PM on the east coast this evening, CNN ran a sobering segment on the North Korea crisis which finally detailed what TPM has been telling you for weeks if not months.

You can't really say the administration has a bad policy on North Korea because in fact it has no policy. Why is there no policy? Because the president has not been able to break the deadlock between the (pro-engagement) State Department and the (pro-confrontation) Pentagon and Office of the Vice-President. And that has led to paralysis. Paralysis or purely reactive gestures. They can't even find their way to a well-thought-out bad policy because they're too tied up in organizational incompetence and procedural ridiculousness.

It's been this way since January 2001 and it still hasn't gotten resolved. This is why we're drifting into disaster.

You know it's really gotta be bad when even the Democrats are willing to stand up mouth some criticisms ... Sheesh.

More on the North Korea debacle in a bit.