The Long View 2003-08-21: Staying on Message

To be honest, I find many of John's posts from 2003 painful to read. In 2016, the Iraq war is now widely seen as an unwinnable fiasco, but part of the reason I started doing this is to remember exactly what things were like back then. Twelve years ago, lots and lots of people talked just like this.

Staying On Message

I was greatly comforted by Bob Herbert's column in today's New York Times, whose two key paragraphs read thus:

How long is it going to take for us to recognize that the war we so foolishly started in Iraq is a fiasco -- tragic, deeply dehumanizing and ultimately unwinnable? How much time and how much money and how many wasted lives is it going to take?

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The U.S. cannot bully its way to victory in Iraq. It needs allies, and it needs a plan. As quickly as possible, we should turn the country over to a genuine international coalition, headed by the U.N. and supported in good faith by the U.S.

The comfort comes from the fact that the nonsense evaporates when you say it out loud. No, the United States did not start the war of which the pacification of Iraq is a battle. No, the military situation is not falling apart. (60 casualties over three-and-a-half months, and an enemy that has already shifted focus from military to propaganda targets, are not the marks of a quagmire.) Finally, the column reveals, as clearly as anything could, the refusal of the internationalist wing of the American political class to accept the fact that it lost the policy debate. It is still trying to turn Iraq over to the UN.

Even before the truck-bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, it was delusion to think that the UN could play referee in this situation. Consider this quote from the Al Qaeda affiliate that claimed credit, however implausibly, for the recent blackout in the northeastern US. According to the MENRI translation, the Islamists say they were:

'hitting the major pillar of the U.S. economy (the Stock Exchange)...[and] the UN, which is opposed to Islam, and is based in New York. It is a message to all the investors that the U.S. is no longer a safe country for their money, knowing that the U.S. economy greatly relies on the trust of the investor...'

Forces under UN sponsorship in Iraq might be helpful. Forces under UN control would quickly prove the last step to complete withdrawal that they were in Somalia. The result of withdrawal from Iraq would not be mere civil war, however. It would be a victory of one form of universalism over another, of the Caliphate over Western-style internationalism. The Islamists understand this very clearly. Someone should tell the New York Times.

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The recall election in California is more entertaining than any block-buster movie that isn't actually animated. Still, I look askance at the morphing of serious effective-government conservatives into pitchfork-wielding Prairie Populists, a good example of which begins the current (August 25) issue of The Weekly Standard:

California owes a colossal debt to a Republican reformer named Hiram Johnson. He was the governor who put a recall provision in the state constitution in 1911. The idea was to allow voters to oust state officials who'd become wholly-owned subsidiaries of special interests. Along with the right to enact or nullify laws through the initiative and referendum processes, recall was an advance in democratic accountability and grass-roots political participation. And it is as relevant and necessary today as it was in 1911.

There are, no doubt, good reasons why Governor Gray Davis should seek other employment. There are also good reasons for having a mechanism for changing leaders between elections. However, the recall and referendum are like the emergency-stop cords in the passenger cars of trains: they are awfully crude controls. In most democracies, a head-of-government as burdened by bad luck and cluelessness as Gray Davis would have lost his majority in the legislature and been replaced by a new premier. If no one could command a majority, then a new election would be held as a matter of course, without the need to garner signatures for a recall petition.

So here are two possibilities for a structural reform. Maybe some state could experiment with having the lower house of the legislature elect the governor. Alternatively, maybe executive powers could be devolved onto the majority leader of the lower house, with the governorship becoming a nominal dignity. This would not be something to try with the presidency: it's important for national unity that there be at least one nationally elected official. At the state level, however, it might help.

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Direct mail is mysterious. Beautifully designed mailings carrying cogent arguments may get a 0.001 response per hundred. On the other hand, an incoherent mess, full of misspellings and crude graphics, may get a response of 2% or 3%, which is the jackpot for direct mail. So, I do not criticize in principle those "political surveys" that I receive in ever greater numbers. The National Republican Committee seems to find that people will send money after filling out a form with questions like, "Do you think that your tax dollars should be used to promote bestiality in the public schools?" Who can argue with success?

Still, I can't believe that they cannot come up with better questions. How about little IQ tests, on which everyone comes out "gifted"? Or how about questionaires like those on fastfood placemats, where you get to name the state capitals? Best of all might be simple threats: "You send us money, or we'll send you more mail." That might well work. As I said, these things are mysterious.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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