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Wrong George Will. Wrong.

Wrong, George Will. Wrong. On the This Week roundtable this morning, the subject of the Santorum comments came up. And after well-stated comments by Michel Martin and Fareed Zakaria, Will piped up and said that what Santorum was saying was "by what standard" (going from recollection here, not a transcript) can you distinguish, can the state distinguish between homosexual acts and adultery or incest or other forms of illicit sex. Yet, as we noted earlier, this is precisely not what Santorum said. Not at all. If you read the actual interview which ginned up this whole controversy, you see that Santorum makes the positive argument that these forms of non-heterosexual or outside-of-marriage sex are in fact equal since they are all "antithetical to strong, healthy families."

Will was calm and dispassionate in stating something that is demonstrably false. He seems either not to have read the actual conversation or he's overly eager to help Santorum out of his jam.

A few days ago

A few days ago Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in Slate defending Ahmed Chalabi against various press criticism. One of Hitchens' points is the following ...

In news stories as well as in opinion columns, it is repeatedly stated that Chalabi hasn't been in the country for many years—or since 1958. This contradicts my own memory and that of several other better-qualified witnesses. They recall him in northern Iraq many times and for long periods in the 1990s, helping to organize opposition conferences and to broker an agreement between the opposing Kurdish factions.
The implication is that Chalabi is being slandered and falsely accused, that there is evidence he was in northern Iraq but that it is being covered up.

This statement is at best quite misleading.

You don't need to rely on anybody's recollection or witnesses. Everyone who has ever reported on or written about Chalabi -- friend or foe -- knows he ran an INC operation out of northern Iraq in the early-mid-1990s. When Chalabi was still supported by the CIA, he was running his operation from the part of Iraqi Kurdistan enjoying de facto autonomy under the protection of US-backed no-fly-zones. There's no mystery about this. EVERYONE KNOWS THIS.

People who are critical of Chalabi often say that he hasn't lived in Iraq since his adolescence. Often they'll add something like 'with the exception of a short period in northern Iraq protected by the US no-fly-zone', etc. Sometimes they don't add this.

But when they say this, the point they are trying to make is that he has never lived in Iraq as an adult -- with the exception of a short period as a would-be insurrectionist in Iraqi Kurdistan -- and thus that he enjoys none of the connections or familiarity with the country that one expects of an exiled opposition leader. This may or may not be a mark against him as a credible candidate for future political leadership or influence in Iraq. But it's certainly not an unreasonable point to raise. And the points it's meant to address are not nullified by a relatively brief period spent operating out of safehouses in northern Iraq.

Chalabi's period in northern Iraq is very good evidence of his willingness to put skin in the game, to put his own life in some danger in an effort to overthrow Saddam -- an important point in his favor. But it's not particularly relevant to the issue of when he went into exile from the country.

Hitchens is creating a false impression of mystery, cover-up and bias, when the facts on this point are clear to pretty much everyone.

Press reports often uncritically

Press reports often uncritically repeat Ahmed Chalabi's claims that he has no ambitions for political office, let alone leadership, in a post-war Iraq -- notwithstanding the fact that this is widely known to be false.

This graf in an article in Saturday's Times is thus helpful ...

According to State Department and Pentagon officials, Mr. Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, has argued that he should head the interim authority. But several senior officials said that was unlikely.
I add the italics to make the point that this seems not to be some State Department slur.

Ahmed Chalabi thinks he should head the interim Iraqi government. Based on?

In the words of

In the words of the immortal Nigel Tufnel, there's a fine line between cleva' and stupid. And after reading the full transcript of Rick Santorum's remarks to the AP about homosexuality, it occurred to me that there's also a fine line between Christian conservative and porn-king.

Say what you will about Teddy and Barney and the rest of the liberal standard-bearers on the Hill, I don't think any of them has ever brought up "man on dog" sex in an on-the-record interview. (In the transcript, the reporter herself is obviously stunned and interrupts the Senator to tell him his comments are "sort of freaking me out."

More generally, I have to agree with Andrew Sullivan who said on his website that the full transcript is actually much more damning than the snippet that's been widely reported. Up until just a few years ago it was commonplace for people to say, why can we outlaw polygamy and yet have it be the case that outlawing homosexual sex is unconstitutional? When you get into topics like incest or pedophilia that's a different subject because everyone can recognize that these are issues involving non-consenting adults, and so forth. But presumably polygamy is a choice made by consenting adults. And yet we outlaw it. So it's a good question because it shows that even while most of us recognize a 'right to privacy' we nevertheless believe in a right to privacy that is shot through by deeply-held social value judgements.

When I first read about Santorum's remarks I found them objectionable. But I assumed that they were some form of a 'slippery slope' or reductio ad absurdum kind of argument, such as the ones above. But they weren't. In fact, the point he goes to great lengths to make doesn't even have anything to do with a constitutional argument. He's not saying, how can you make value-neutral distinctions between homosexuality and bigamy or incest. He is, as nearly as I can tell, making the positive assertion there are no distinctions. They are each "antithetical to strong, healthy families."

Having said all this, I can't say that I'm surprised. I'm surprised he said it quite so clearly, not that he thinks it.

Now you have the President supporting Santorum and calling him an "inclusive man." For the reasons Eleanor Clift sets forth here, I guess the president doesn't feel it's possible to criticize Santorum -- which tells you a lot. But "inclusive"? I can think of a number of words he could have used. 'Principled'? Maybe they're bad principles, but he's principled. 'Deeply religious'? Okay. But 'inclusive'?

One thing that hurts politicians more than anything is saying things that make them sound ridiculous. Calling Rick Santorum 'inclusive' makes the president sound ridiculous.

Thus saith ABCs John

Thus saith ABC's John Cochran in a new story at ABCNews.com ...

To build its case for war with Iraq, the Bush administration argued that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but some officials now privately acknowledge the White House had another reason for war — a global show of American power and democracy.

Officials inside government and advisers outside told ABCNEWS the administration emphasized the danger of Saddam's weapons to gain the legal justification for war from the United Nations and to stress the danger at home to Americans.

"We were not lying," said one official. "But it was just a matter of emphasis."

...

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks changed everything, including the Bush administration's thinking about the Middle East — and not just Saddam Hussein.

Senior officials decided that unless action was taken, the Middle East would continue to be a breeding ground for terrorists. Officials feared that young Arabs, angry about their lives and without hope, would always looking for someone to hate — and that someone would always be Israel and the United States.

Europeans thought the solution was to get a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But American officials felt a Middle East peace agreement would only be part of the solution.

The Bush administration felt that a new start was needed in the Middle East and that Iraq was the place to show that it is democracy — not terrorism — that offers hope.

...

The Bush administration wanted to make a statement about its determination to fight terrorism. And officials acknowledge that Saddam had all the requirements to make him, from their standpoint, the perfect target.

Other countries have such weapons, yet the United States did not go to war with them. And though Saddam oppressed and tortured his own people, other tyrants have done the same without incurring U.S. military action. Finally, Saddam had ties to terrorists — but so have several countries that the United States did not fight.

But Saddam was guilty of all these things and he met another requirement as well — a prime location, in the heart of the Middle East, between Syria and Iran, two countries the United States wanted to send a message to.

Hmmmm. I feel like I've heard someone else saying something like that -- and before it was cool! Definitely read the whole piece.

A few weeks ago

A few weeks ago I sat down to read (and review) a book that I expected to like a lot. And then I didn't. I had that expectation because the subject is so rich (terroristic Islamism) and because I have such respect for the author (Paul Berman). The book is Terror and Liberalism. Here's my review in The Washington Monthly.

Shock and awe said

"Shock and awe said to many people that all we've got to do is unleash some might and people will crumble. And it turns out the fighters were a lot fiercer than we thought. Because, for example, we didn't come north from Turkey, Saddam Hussein was able to move a lot of special Republican Guard units and fighters from north to south. So the resistance for our troops moving south and north was significant resistance. On the other hand, our troops handled it, handled that resistance quite well."

Who? President George W. Bush in an interview today with Tom Brokaw aboard Air Force One. In the interview, he goes on to say that he wasn't worried because he had confidence in the plan.

Meanwhile, don't miss this report on the fall of Baghdad by Tim Judah in The New York Review Books. You know the story: the increasingly comical statements by al-Sahaf, the wildfire of rumor, the sudden collapse of the state, the looting. But like all good reportage this brings it to life, lets you experience some of it like you were there, lets you understand some of it.

Also, I've had a number of folks write in to ask recently for recommendations of books about the Middle East and/or Islam. Now, obviously, these aren't topics about which I can speak with any expertise. But I can suggest a couple that I liked and I felt I learned from. One is Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman by William Montgomery Watt. If I recall correctly this is actually an abridgement or condensation of a longer, more academically-oriented book. It's a biography of Muhammad and -- as such -- a history of the earliest origins of Islam. It's short, maybe a couple hundred pages (I'm sitting in a Starbucks right now. So I can't look at my copy.) and it's a couple decades old so I suspect it might seem a touch dated in some superficial ways.

Now, obviously the information in this book won't give you any better purchase on rebuilding Iraq, the Middle East generally, clashes of civilizations and so forth. But if you're looking to familiarize yourself with Islam this is obviously some pretty key info. I remember it as one of the better books -- better written, crafted and so forth -- I've read on the subject.

Also very worth reading is A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin. Almost every conflict in the Middle East for the last seventy or eighty years can reasonably be seen as the fall-out from or at least deeply tied to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. This is a really, really good book. One of those if you only read one book kinda books.

Finally, there's Ataturk, the most recent major biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. I'm a fan of Ataturk's and a fan of this book. If you want to learn more about the origins of modern Turkey it's not a bad place to start.

Yesterday I mentioned an

Yesterday I mentioned an article coming out about the various exile groups vying for power in post-war Iraq, and how they each have their own sponsors in the United States government. The CIA, State, DOD? Everyone's got their horse. Here's the article by Eli Lake in The New Republic. Definitely take a look. It's important.

Which is worse That

Which is worse? That there are five or six different exile groups vying to control post-war Iraq? Or that each of those five or six groups is allied with a different arm of the United States government?

It's not quite that bad. But it's not that great an exaggeration either. We've touched on this in passing over recent weeks. But the divisions that bedeviled US Iraq politics through the 1990s haven't gotten resolved. And now they could become really acute -- especially since time is now of the essence. (Say what you will about the Iranians, they at least know who they're supporting.) Of course, the Pentagon is in league with Ahmed Chalabi's INC. For years the CIA has been backing the Iraqi National Accord headed up by Iyad Alawi -- basically made of ex-Generals and security types. State has its own theory. (To say that there is bad blood between Chalabi and Alawi is the vastest of understatements.) Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition likes Adnan Pachachi. The list goes on and on. (The Brits had issues like this in their sojourn in Arabia and Iraq.)

It's the Beltway on the Tigris. Just as the divisions of Iraqi politics got played out in Washington during the 1990s, the reverse may happen now.

Tomorrow a really good article is coming out that unpacks this aspect of the story quite nicely. I'll link to it when it goes online.

Coming soon -- the backstory on that New York Times four US bases in Iraq story that Rumsfeld knocked down.

The newsflash of the

The newsflash of the day is the surprising strength of clerically-based Shi'a groups in Iraq. Perhaps 'surprising' should be placed in edgy quotation marks, since the articles and columns appearing in today's papers are based on the comments of those who aren't surprised at all -- namely folks at State, CIA, the broader intelligence community, and region experts generally. The argument behind these critiques is not that the problem is insurmountable but that the planners of the war seem to have given the issue so little attention.

Take a look at "U.S. Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites," which is above-the-fold in the Post. The Times has a complementary piece on Iran infiltrating agents into southern Iraq to organize the Shi'a along lines congenial to Iran's religious and geopolitical interests.

The most interesting piece may be the column in the Times by Dilip Hiro. He explores the longstanding and distressing pattern by which in situations of anarchy or delegitimized governments, it is often the clerics who have the sole remaining base of social and political authority, and are best able to provide some measure of security and essential services.

We're still in 'too-soon-to-tell' territory. But the democratizers in the DOD camp are concerned about the situation with the Shi'as and how ably the Iranians have been playing the situation. They do have on their side the fact that the most senior and revered Shi'a clerics are not fans of the Iranians' theocratic model. There's also the counterveiling force of Iraqi and, more broadly, Arab nationalism. But will these be enough?

I still want to say more about Newt Gingrich's cartoonish performance at AEI yesterday. But for the moment I just want to discuss an interchange which Charles Krauthammer, another of the members of the panel, had with one of the questioners. (One of the most entertaining parts of the panel was the time when Gingrich's clownish, grade-school rhetoric became too much for Krauthammer, and he felt the need to pipe in with some clarifications.) A key question today is what we would do if the Iraqis elected an Islamist government. When a questioner posed this question to Krauthammer, he as much as refused to entertain it. While granting that it was a possibility, he said it was extremely unlikely since people had never freely voted for what he called 'totalitarianism.' (I think he called it an 'extreme hypothetical' or perhaps a 'radical hypothetical' -- I'll check my recording later to verify.) People in the audience tossed out the examples of Iran and Nazi Germany, which are at best flawed examples, since in neither case did a majority of the population vote for the government that came to power. But it has happened, exactly this, as recently as 1992 in Algeria. The Islamist party, the FIS, was winning what no one doubted was a free election when the military stepped in and annulled the results of the election. (The one saving grace in Iraq may be the inability of Shi'a and Sunni Islamist to come together politically, let alone religiously.)

In its own way Krauthammer's comment was the most disturbing part of the presentation since it was an example of the one thing none of us can really afford: the temptation to cling to ideologically-driven assumptions over observed facts.

Next Up: the administration's get-out-quick camp's stated desire to avoid the appearance of being colonizers or occupiers and why this is the most ridiculous sort of cop-out.

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