Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The 2006 Elections and the War in Iraq

In last Friday’s Washington Post, columnist Charles Krauthammer tried to argue that tomorrow’s mid-term elections would not deliver a historic and decisive blow to President Bush’s agenda, particularly his agenda in Iraq.

Krauthammer’s argument is based on his reading of the history of mid-year elections. He noted that the anticipated “anti-Republican wave” – a net pick up of perhaps 20-25 House seats, and 4-6 Senate seats, by the Democrats – is relatively modest by historical standards. Reagan lost more in the 6th year of his presidency; so too FDR. One of the greatest mid-term election disasters (not noted by Krauthammer) occurred in Dwight Eisenhower’s 6th year, 1958. At a time when Eisenhower was personally quite popular, the Democrats added nearly 50 members in the House, and another 16 in the Senate, building upon their already commanding majorities in both chambers. 

I’m all for studying history. But recent history paints a decidedly different picture than what Krauthammer suggests. The GOP was embarrassed by the results of the 1998 mid-term elections, a failure to capitalize on the 6th year itch that Krauthammer attributes to “Republican overreaching on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” Given low unemployment, modest inflation, and continued strong economic growth, it is not inconceivable that the Bush administration might have been poised to avoid a 6th year setback (if so, would Harold Meyerson be lamenting “Democratic overreaching on the Mark Foley scandal”?).

Instead, the GOP is playing defense, and Iraq war advocates such as Krauthammer are scrambling to avoid blame for any of the ill-effects of their ill-conceived war. (See also the VanityFair.com article highlighting neoconservative criticisms of the Bush administration’s execution of the war).

The Iraq war is the decisive issue for the vast majority of Americans, exceeding taxes, immigration, health care, and other presumed drivers of voting behavior. Further, the war is unpopular, the costs have far exceeded the benefits, and there is no end in sight. As David Boaz and David Kirby note in a recent Cato Policy Analysis, the Iraq war was a factor – along with “Republican overspending, social intolerance, [and] civil liberties infringements” – in driving many libertarian voters away from George Bush in 2004. “If that trend continues into 2006 and 2008,” they write, “Republicans will lose elections they would otherwise win.” 

On the whole, voters are frustrated, impatient, and angry. If the GOP staves off disaster, they will do so in spite of, not because of, the disastrous war in Iraq.

Don’t Tread on Me

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales does not like it when members of Congress poke their noses into the affairs of the executive branch. 

Consider today’s Washington Post report on this week’s release of the transcript from an April House Judiciary Committee hearing on such matters as domestic surveillance and treatment of potential terrorists. During the hearing, Gonzales repeatedly evaded lawmakers’ questions.

Here’s a snippet from the exchange between Gonzales and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY):

Nadler: Can you assure this Committee that the United States Government will not grab anybody at an airport or anyplace in U.S. territory, and send them to another country without some sort of due process?

Gonzales: Well, what I can tell you is that we’re going to follow the law in terms of what—

Nadler: Well, does the law permit us to send someone to another country without any due process, without a hearing before an administrative, an immigration judge or somebody? Just grab them off the street and put them on a plane, goodbye without — we’ve done that. Does the law permit us to do that? Do we claim that right?

Gonzales: I’m not going to confirm that we’ve done that.

Bush and Gonzales have this message for the Congress: Go back to investigating steroid use among athletes or something, but don’t tread on us!

On Media and Habeas Corpus

TV.  People call it the “boob tube.”  People banish it from their homes to demonstrate how smart and superior they are (oh, and elitist).  People argue endlessly about who should be able to own TV stations because, with too much media in too few hands, other people might hear or learn the wrong things.

The inferiority of TV.  Its subjection to the control of media titans, who play footsie with political power.  These things are demonstrated to be absurd by things like this: a former sportscaster on a throwaway cable news channel imploring his audience and the President about habeas corpus, the Military Commissions Act, and American history - for nearly nine minutes.  This is the kind of thing that happens in our supposedly vapid, short-attention-span media world.

Now, I’m not a fan of Keith Olbermann, nor an opponent of the current administration (though I criticize policies unreservedly when I think they’re wrong).  I make these disclaimers to encourage you to consider the arguments Olbermann makes, looking past some of his personal invective.  He states quite strongly things that our careful scholars are suggesting and exploring here, here, here, here, and here

People, when you’re not reading Levy, Moller, or Lynch - watch TV!

The Costs of War

With 103 American fatalities, October was the fourth-bloodiest month since the beginning of the Iraq War. But the focus on the number of battle deaths may understate the true costs of the war for the American soldier. Due to innovations in battlefield medicine, we’re getting much better at saving soldiers’ lives. In WWII, 30 percent of those injured in combat died. In Vietnam–and even in the Gulf War–it was 24 percent. Now it’s around 10 percent. That is unquestionably a positive development. But it also means that many of those we save are horribly maimed. As this article from the New England Journal of Medicine describes:

One airman with devastating injuries from a mortar attack outside Balad on September 11, 2004, was on an operating table at Walter Reed just 36 hours later. In extremis from bilateral thigh injuries, abdominal wounds, shrapnel in the right hand, and facial injuries, he was taken from the field to the nearby 31st CSH in Balad. Bleeding was controlled, volume resuscitation begun, a guillotine amputation at the thigh performed. He underwent a laparotomy with diverting colostomy. His abdomen was left open, with a clear plastic bag as covering. He was then taken to Landstuhl by an Air Force Critical Care Transport team. When he arrived in Germany, Army surgeons determined that he would require more than 30 days’ recovery, if he made it at all. Therefore, although resuscitation was continued and a further washout performed, he was sent on to Walter Reed. There, after weeks in intensive care and multiple operations, he did survive. This is itself remarkable. Injuries like his were unsurvivable in previous wars. The cost, however, can be high. The airman lost one leg above the knee, the other in a hip disarticulation, his right hand, and part of his face. How he and others like him will be able to live and function remains an open question….

[F]or many new problems, the answers remain unclear. Early in the war, for example, Kevlar vests proved dramatically effective in preventing torso injuries. Surgeons, however, now find that IEDs are causing blast injuries that extend upward under the armor and inward through axillary vents. Blast injuries are also producing an unprecedented burden of what orthopedists term “mangled extremities” — limbs with severe soft-tissue, bone, and often vascular injuries. These can be devastating, potentially mortal injuries, and whether to amputate is one of the most difficult decisions in orthopedic surgery. Military surgeons have relied on civilian trauma criteria to guide their choices, but those criteria have not proved reliable in this war. Possibly because the limb injuries are more extreme or more often combined with injuries to other organs, attempts to salvage limbs following the criteria have frequently failed, with life-threatening blood loss, ischemia, and sepsis.

Even with all the efforts made to save limbs, “the amputation rate in Iraq is double that of previous wars,” as the LA Times reported earlier this year, in its three-part series on wounded American soldiers. 

That war is a bloody business is hardly a novel point.  And, of course, it is not by itself an argument against any particular war. If these men incurred similar injuries charging Al Qaeda positions at Tora Bora, that would have been terrible, but far easier to justify.  However, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify the costs of our open-ended commitment in Iraq, where our mission becomes ever murkier, and victory, however defined, continues to recede over the horizon.

Undeterrable

The subhead to Joshua Muravchik’s “Operation Comeback,” a strategy memo for his fellow neocons that appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, reads:

Neoconservatives have the president’s ear, but they also have lots of baggage. To stay relevant, they must admit mistakes, embrace public diplomacy, and start making the case for bombing Iran.

Which I might ordinarily chalk up to mischief by a smartass editor, but in this case it’s a fair summary of the piece.

First among the mistakes Muravchik says neoconservatives need to own up to? “We are guilty of poorly explaining neoconservatism.” Apparently it’s the packaging, not the product, that has led the American public to reject perpetual war aimed at “transform[ing] the political culture of the Middle East from one of absolutism and violence to one of tolerance and compromise.”

There’s no need to give up on that dream, says Muravchik. We can get ‘er done with a bigger army, and by repairing America’s public diplomacy apparatus abroad. That problem with the packaging? Leave it to the folks who designed the product–they’ll fix it: “No group other than neocons is likely to figure out how to [repair public diplomacy]. We are, after all, a movement whose raison d’etre was combating anti-Americanism in the United States. Who better, then, to combat it abroad?”

Wasn’t this the movement that once styled itself as “liberals mugged by reality”? Somewhere along the line they really learned how to fight back.

The Great Crocodile Dies

P. W. Botha, who was prime minister of South Africa as the struggle against apartheid reached its climax, has died at 90. In 1988, I attended a conference organized by South African libertarians in neighboring Swaziland. When I arrived at the conference and approached the registration table, the first thing I saw was a stack of bumper stickers reading “I ♥ PW.” I was appalled – libertarians proclaiming their support for the boss of the apartheid state?

Then I got closer and realized it wasn’t a heart, it was a tomato, as in “I PW.” Why a tomato? My hosts explained to me that the bumper sticker expressed solidarity with a protester who had thrown a tomato at the State President. Well, that’s better, I thought.

Botha was pushed out of power soon after that by F. W. de Klerk, who freed Nelson Mandela from jail and negotiated the end of apartheid.

No End in Sight

The front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post by Tom Ricks and Peter Baker is a sobering must-read. (“Tipping Point for War’s Supporters?”)

Don’t be fooled by the headline or the first few paragraphs. While it is true that stalwart Republicans such as John Warner have become more outspoken about the lack of progress in Iraq, and some in the GOP have mused openly about the need for a new approach, the consensus that emerges from the article is toward “a new phase” of the conflict, not an end to it. That is how former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim describes the current state of play. Zakheim dismisses the notion that the United States will leave any time soon, and it is his words – not Warner’s – that close out this important article. (Ricks, by the way, will be at Cato on Thursday to discuss the U.S. experience in Iraq. Visit the Cato web site for more details.)

That a solid majority of Americans want a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq must now be seen as irrelevant. Public and so-called elite opinion has diverged almost from the moment that the Bush administration launched the war in Iraq. In other words, the tipping point, if you want to call it that, occurred long ago. This has had no impact on the size of the U.S. military presence in the country, nor on the mission as a whole.

If you think this assessment too pessimistic, consider the table that appears below the Ricks/Baker story in the Post’s print edition. The piece compiled by the Post’s Dita Smith, with research assistance by Robert Thompson, documents the sliding target date for when U.S. troops might begin to be withdrawn from Iraq. The graphic begins by noting that Pentagon planners expected that the 150,000 troops would be cut to about 30,000 by the fall of 2003. But this was only the first of many misjudgments as to the costs and risks of this war. A progression of statements by senior civilian and military personnel since January 2005 shows how projections for troop cuts have consistently missed their mark. According to Gen. George Casey, security in Iraq might improve in 12 months time, which would allow for some troops reductions in the fall of 2007, but for now more troops might be needed.

That doesn’t sound like a change of course to me; and to the extent that it is, it is a change in the wrong direction.