Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

I was willing to

"I was willing to fight with a gun, but not to commit suicide." That's the best quote from an article by Anthony Shadid in Sunday's Washington Post. It's about a 22-year-old member of the Saddam Fedayeen who finally deserted several days ago in Baghdad. He fought under threat of death, though perhaps not altogether unwillingly, and then finally bailed when his superiors selected him for a suicide mission. Reading this piece you start to get the details of the picture of how the paramilitary resistance was at first unexpectedly stiff and then rapidly collapsed.

I really haven't done the sort of systematic reading of different reporting by different reporters that would make me comfortable saying whose has been the "best." But I've been consistently struck by the quality of Shadid's, most of all the depth of the detail (which is the essence of good reporting), the material that goes beyond the standard stock interviews and anecdotes. I'm sure he'll win tons of awards for it. Deservedly.

So far much of

So far, much of the discussion of WMD has been focused on whether war-advocates or war-opponents will be vindicated retrospectively by how much is found. This way of framing the question, however, may miss the real issue -- what we may never find and why. Think about the ways people might dispose of WMD or WMD precursors if they were in a big, big hurry. It's not a comforting thought.

My sons are 25

"My sons are 25 and 30," Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming) said on the House floor a few days ago. "They are blond-haired and blue-eyed. One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean if you go into a black community, you cannot sell a gun to any black person, or does that mean because my ... "

At this point, Representative Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) cut Cubin off and demanded her remarks be stricken from the record for implying that blacks are presumptive drug addicts. Cubin declined to retract her remarks, while she said she did "apologize to my colleague for his sensitivities [italics added]." The House later voted 227 to 195 against striking Cubin's remarks from the record on the basis of their being inappropriate. No Republican voted in the affirmative.

I've been so taken up with the war that I haven't had time to make any mention of this yet. But I'm far from the first to express bewilderment that it hasn't gotten more attention. Indeed, the Washington Post -- not exactly some scrappy lefty blog -- has an editorial on it in today's paper ("Where's the Outrage?").

And really, where is the outrage? It's difficult to see how anyone without pretty *#$%ed-up views on race could have said that, even as a slip. But what's really important as far as the public square is concerned is not so much the rancid views people may have in their hearts but that they keep their mouths shut and publicly repudiate this stuff when it slips out. This Cubin seems completely unwilling to do. And her colleagues seem in no rush to make her. According to the Post, Speaker Denny Hastert said her remarks "clearly left the wrong impression."

Clearly ... And so do Hastert's. The Post is right: where's the outrage? If I were Trent Lott, I'd ask for a rehearing of my case, because the rules for this sort of thing seem to have loosened considerably.

What about the looting

What about the looting, the mayhem, and the fires? It's clearly a bad situation. And these things get to a tipping point where they can go from looting and mayhem to something far deeper and darker which is very hard to put a stop to. Having said all this, though, I think we shouldn't be too quick to ask why the invasion force didn't have some sort of constabulary or plan in place to stop this. If it's still like this in a week, it'll be a good question to ask. But I think it is virtually inevitable that you're going to have some period of rupture -- a window of time when there's an utter vacuum of authority -- when a government like this falls under military assault.

One reason is historical, another is operational. The first is just, as we've noted before, the steel beam under compression finally snapping. It's a judgment call; but to some degree it's probably better to ride this tumult in the short-term rather than squelch it. There's a lot of rage and clamor to be let off and better not to turn too much of it toward US soldiers trying to keep everyone in check.

The more important issue, however, seems operational.

One moment you're in very active battle for a city. The last thing you want is thirty-thousand lightly-armed or unarmed policemen and American aid facilitators hanging around to get shot, or taken hostage or just get in way. The next moment you're not at war and you've got thousands of US soldiers and marines who are -- for a host of reasons -- in no position to police anything but the most egregious sorts of crimes. Add to this, of course, the fact that even that dividing line isn't so clear. We have mainly a liberated/conquered city where large-scale hostilities are at an end and the old regime is gone. But we still have irregulars or foreign fighters or holdouts shooting off occasional shots. And that makes it hard to send anything but heavily armed folks out into the field.

Add to this one final complexity. Part of the problem is that you're dealing with a former regime that was so shot through with state-terror that it's hard to see how many people who ever wielded "hard" authority under the old regime are going to want to show their heads again even in an interim capacity. The Army is putting out the call for police and firefighters and the people who ran the phones and water and electricity to come back to work. In the latter cases, that'll probably work. But what about the police? I'm not sure there were people in Iraq who would fit our rather benign definition of "police." I'm sure there were low-level folks in the security apparatus who were decent people compromised by a bad system. But I can imagine those folks wouldn't want to show their faces just now. And do we want them keeping order for us?

It's a tough situation, and an ugly one that we've got to get a handle on. Morally and under international law, we're responsible for restoring order when it was our tanks that smashed the old, albeit hideous, order. (Isn't this a case of the troop strength, again, being too small? Yes, I suspect so, to a degree. But even if there were a lot more troops immediately at the ready, I think you'd still have an interval of chaos like this since the sort of troops you use to fight your way in to the city just aren't equipped for policing duties. We need to see how it looks in a week or two.) The real danger over the long-term is the sort of deeper inter-communal blood-letting which reared its head yesterday in Najaf -- of which we'll say more later. But I think we should recognize that in the short-run this sort of ugliness may have been close to unavoidable.

Following up on the

Following up on the earlier post, here's an article with an inventory of the ransacked house of longtime Saddam crony Tariq Aziz. It's a litany of artifacts which are mostly striking in their ordinariness and Western-ness. My picks for best tidbits are the the marked-up copy of Princeton Review's "Cracking the GMAT" or perhaps the Britney Spears posters on the walls in the kids' room. Also, here's my most recent column in The Hill, from two days ago, on the fate of Iraq's battlefield dead.

Its about 1230 AM

It's about 12:30 AM on Friday morning and on CNN there's live coverage of a huge number of Iraqi soldiers, ex-soldiers really, walking south toward Baghdad along an open two-lane road. The landscape looks like it might in the eastern, flatter part of Colorado or New Mexico. What's being reported is that these were Iraqi conscripts who were stationed in positions in the north and as the Iraqi army dispersed and disintegrated they just hit the roads and headed south. They deserted. Their officers deserted them. Various other possibilities. They're walking toward Baghdad, which is more than one hundred miles away, and then they think down toward southern Iraq where they're originally from. Many of them are sandal-clad or even bare-footed. They don't seem to have water or food or money. Mostly, they're wearing civilian clothes.

It's not even clear how much of this is true, or just who these men are. But whoever they are, there are hundreds, actually thousands of them walking south down a road toward Baghdad.

There's all sorts of talk now of who was right and who was wrong about this or that, what will come next, and so forth. But watching this you just see the magnitude of the whole situation, the number of people on the move, displaced, with new hope, with no plan.

It's not an analogy. But the image it brings to my mind is of slaves at the end of Civil War who headed out onto the roads looking for relatives who they'd been separated from.

It defies analysis or quips or quick insights (imagine that for TPM!). In their own way these are the most staggering images yet.

We heard a lot

We heard a lot about "Shock and Awe" in the lead-up to this war -- that is, the hammering concussions of American air power that were supposed to cow the Iraqi military if not the regime itself into submission, the swift whack of a bat that was supposed to shatter the hold of the brittle regime.

That didn't work, of course. Loyalists and militiamen were more finely meshed into the civilian population than we thought. It took the 'old-fashioned' combination of armor on the ground and precision munitions from the air to grind away the Iraqi army.

But "Shock and Awe" wasn't a misplaced phrase. We just had the date wrong. It came yesterday, with the collapse of Baghdad. And it came not in Baghdad or Kirkuk or Basra but in Cairo, Beirut, Riyadh, Amman and other capitals around the Arab world.

It's far from the case that everyone applauded what they saw. But it seems hard to find man-on-the-street interviews that don't carry a large measure of shock and in many cases something very like awe. (Yesterday I discussed an interview with a neoconservative in which he described the great hope of this invasion as the confrontation that it could bring about between testimonials of Iraqi liberation and the pieties and orthodoxies of anti-American arab nationalism. It was an on-the-record interview. So I can say that the neo in question was David Frum. And yesterday was a pretty good day for David's predictive ability.) What I take most from these man-on-the-street interviews is the mix of surprise and humiliation. From Jordan there are a slew of interviews with Jordanians expressing contempt for the Iraqis dancing in the streets in Baghdad. There is something very like a sense of betrayal. This was presaged in an article from an issue or two ago in the New York Review of Books in which the author was interviewing Iraqis and Jordanians in Amman or some other Jordanian city. The Jordanians were against an invasion. The Iraqis, though regretting it, hating the prospect of civilian casualties, and insisting the Americans shouldn't stay long, supported it. There's a moment in the interview when the author asks one of the Iraqi women to explain the divergence of views and she says something like, "they didn't have to live under Saddam."

Beyond that, in these various interviews from yesterday, you see questions like: What happened to the Republican Guard? Why were we so weak? Were we lied to? We supported Saddam in spite of ourselves, knowing he was a bastard because we thought maybe he could take the Americans down a notch, strike a blow for Arab pride, and so forth. Now we're doubly humiliated. Why are they celebrating? What happened? Why was there so little resistance? Why did Baghdad fall so quickly?

Then you see these statements which mix excitement that Saddam has fallen with shame or humiliation that it took American armor to do it and, secondarily, that perhaps they should have been more serious about the need for his fall in the first place. I think we should see very clearly the toxic potentialities of that sense of humiliation and shame.

Positive or negative, however, almost all the statements bespeak fractured if not shattered certainties. Now, it seems to me that there are a few things important to note about this. If there is one thing that history and social psychology tell us it is that ingrained idea systems can be extremely resistant and often impervious to new facts. Indeed, they can rapidly regroup and accommodate new and what may seem utterly contradictory new data. (Indeed, as good as yesterday looked and was, we should be equally careful to judge all of this on its own terms as much as we can and place these events as little as possible into the conceptual architecture of our preconceptions and imaginations.)

All of this is simply a long-winded way of saying that the window of opportunity, the window of changing expectations could prove exceedingly brief. We're already seeing a host of things, even happening today, which could provide the building blocks of a very different image, indeed a very different reality. As the foreign media is already starting to note, the number of people who attended the statue-toppling yesterday was actually rather small -- not thousands or tens of thousands, but maybe a couple hundred. Then today there is news that two Shi'a clerics were literally cut to pieces by a crowd of rival Shi'a in Najaf at the Ali Shrine. This is the steel beam in compression that the people who know this subject best have long predicted. This doesn't necessarily nullify what happened yesterday. But it should show us how hard this is still going to be and how a very different set of images and realities could quickly push aside all the consternation those of yesterday created. Anti-war types shouldn't let their preconceptions blind them to the palpable feelings of relief and happiness many Iraqis are feeling today. But hawks shouldn't fool themselves into ignoring how ephemeral those images could prove.

A couple weeks ago I wrote that one of the pre-conditions for the success of democratization in post-war Japan and Germany was the shattering impact of overwhelming military defeat and the resulting shattering of confidence in the pre-war elites and ideological systems that had led the two countries into war. This could be a potentially equally shattering event. But all seems in flux and much of what is not in flux remains uncertain. The end result depends mightily on subsequent events and actions -- some of which we control, some of which we don't

Yesterday when the American

Yesterday when the American flag went up on the face of the soon-to-fall statue of Saddam, I wondered the following: Clearly Centcom and the folks at the Pentagon are rightly cautious about giving any symbolic evidence or sign that this an American occupation rather than a liberation. The best example of that is the hoisting of American flags, as we already saw in Umm Qasr a week or two ago. So why do the US soldiers and marines seem to have all these American flags on the ready to hoist up?

A post that went up on the BBC this morning gives a clue.

We've just learned from the US marines that the US flag that was put on the face of Saddam yesterday - it was replaced by an Iraqi flag when the people shouted for that - was the flag that was flying over the Pentagon on September 11.

For a lot of the American marines, they think this war is all about defeating terrorism, they will tell you that over and over again. There is also a connection in the minds of the American public between the regime of Saddam and what happened on September 11, and apparently the flag that was draped over this face was flying over the pentagon when the plane crashed into it.

So apparently this wasn't just any flag.

It was still a slip-up. But this puts it in a different, deeper context. It's also one of those gives-you-faith-in-America moments to find out that the Marine who hoisted the flag -- Cpl. Edward Chin -- is apparently Chinese-American.

LATE UPDATE: He's more on Chin from Abcnews.com ...

"And the flag — it was on the Pentagon when it got hit on 9/11. That was the same flag, and me being from New York, it kind of all goes together a little bit. It was a team effort, which made it even better, you know," he said.

Chin, 23, and his family are ethnic Chinese from Myanmar, formerly Burma. The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when Chin was just a week old. Chin, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, joined the Corps in 1999 and was assigned to the First Tank Battalion at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., before being shipped off to Kuwait in January.

More soon...

Two questions face us

Two questions face us in the reconstruction of Iraq. Many more than two, of course. But, for the moment, let's discuss these two. One is whether we should try to set up a full-fledged democracy in Iraq or fall back on the older approach of installing some sort of well-meaning strongman who can hold the country together and move slowly toward something like democracy. Then there's the question of whether we should back Ahmed Chalabi and the INC or some other group or mix of groups. There are many people who argue that these two questions are really just one question: that supporting Chalabi means supporting full-fledged democracy and opposing him means supporting something beside democracy. This equation is simply false on a host of levels. We'll be talking more about this, not least of which the CIA's relationship with Chalabi. But for the moment don't miss this piece by Gideon Rose in Slate.

Given the events of

Given the events of the day, I can't help wondering whether maybe we really did get Saddam when we bombed that restaurant the other day. The regime really did seem to snap right after that, at least in Baghdad. And it seems like more than just a coincidence. On what was yesterday morning in Baghdad -- i.e., the morning of the day that ended with the statue toppling -- the reporters noted what then seemed like an eerie silence in the city. Even if he wasn't killed, perhaps Saddam committed what amounts to political suicide -- deciding it was time to just vanish. (Al Jazeera reported rumors that he had sought and received refuge in the Russian embassy.) Regardless of the details, something seems to have happened after that raid.