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Saturday, December 23, 2006

What Is It Good For?

A couple of readings on the war you might find interesting. The first is by John Kerry and it is about flip-flopping. The second compares the experience in Iraq to the experience of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo. There are interesting parallels.

Here are the two commentaries:

I cut these down quickly, so you may want to read the full versions instead. First, lessons from the Congo:

A Congo lesson for Bush, by Adam Hochschild, Commentary, LA Times:

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT:

Your interview in the Washington Post made headlines ... because you continued to talk about "victory" in Iraq — a hint that you may increase the number of American troops there.

But it caught my eye for a different reason. In it (after expressing some "befuddlement" at the suggestion that you do not read books), you explained that the most recent book you read was "King Leopold's Ghost," about the plundering of Congo a century ago. This pleased me because I wrote that book. ...[L]et me ... raise a few follow-up questions with you here.

First, as you now know, the long effort by King Leopold II of Belgium to bring Congo under his control was driven by his avid quest for a commodity central to industry and transportation: rubber. Does that remind you of anything?

What's more, the king justified his grab for Congo's natural resources with much talk about bringing philanthropy and Christianity to darkest Africa. Now what did that remind you of?

Leopold cleared at least $1.1 billion in today's dollars during the 23 years he controlled Congo, and his businessmen friends made additional huge sums. Much of the money flowed into companies with special royal concession rights to exploit the rain forest. Final question... Do those companies remind you of anything? If you mentioned Halliburton or DynCorp, you're right again.

As a reader of history, you must have been interested ... in something else in the Congo story: the case of another world leader facing his own Abu Ghraib scandal. ...

King Leopold II was a master of public relations. He was really his own Karl Rove... For years the press at home and abroad dutifully praised his efforts to bring "civilization" to Africa; a whole shipload of Belgian journalists went to Congo in 1898 to enthuse about the opening of a new railroad.

But, like you, he got into big trouble through photographs. These were mainly taken by a British missionary named Alice Harris, and they showed Congolese being whipped, chained as hostages and with their hands cut off by Leopold's soldiers. Through the efforts of a British journalist named Edmund Dene Morel, whom the king liked about as much as you like Seymour Hersh, these photos were splashed on front pages all over the world. ...

Statues of Leopold in Congo have long been toppled, one in Belgium was recently mutilated, and streets named after him there are having their names changed. And all this despite the fact that his family remains in the monarchy...

If you send those additional troops to Iraq and don't swiftly withdraw the ones now there, I suspect ... a similar judgment on you 100 years from now. It's true that you've not slashed the population of Iraq in half, as Leopold and those who immediately followed him did in Congo, but that's small comfort.

For your next assignment, Mr. President, how about a different sort of reading? Ask Laura to stuff your Christmas stocking with books about people who've had the courage to change their minds. One former tenant of the house you live in, Lyndon B. Johnson, entered politics as a traditional segregationist but ended up doing more for civil rights than any American president of his century. Another, Dwight D. Eisenhower, spent half his life in the U.S. military but gave us (a little late) an eloquent warning about the military-industrial complex.

Another ex-military man, Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps, won the Medal of Honor twice, but then ended up denouncing the oil companies and agribusiness corporations he realized that he had been fighting for in U.S. interventions in Central America.

History is filled with such people, and I wish you many inspiring hours reading about them. And, in the coming two years, I hope you'll act on their example.

Next, John Kerry on flip-flopping:

When Resolve Turns Reckless, by John F. Kerry, Commentary, Washington Post: There's something much worse than being accused of "flip-flopping": refusing to flip when it's obvious that your course of action is a flop.

I say this to President Bush as someone who learned the hard way how embracing the world's complexity can be twisted into a crude political shorthand. ... But with U.S. troops in Iraq in the middle of an escalating civil war, this is no time for politics. Refusing to change course for fear of the political fallout is not only dangerous -- it is immoral.

I'd rather explain a change of position any day than look a parent in the eye and tell them that their son or daughter had to die so that a broken policy could live.

No one should be looking for vindication in what is happening in Iraq today. The lesson here is not that some of us were right about Iraq or that some of us were wrong. The lesson is simply that we need to change course rapidly rather than perversely use mistakes already made and lives already given as an excuse to make more mistakes and lose even more lives. ...

Changing tactics in the face of changing conditions on the ground, developing new strategies because the old ones don't work, is a hell of a lot smarter than the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again with the same tragic results.

Half of the service members listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial died after America's leaders knew that our strategy in that war was not working. Was then-secretary of defense Robert McNamara steadfast as he continued to send American troops to die for a war he knew privately could not be won? History does not remember his resolve -- it remembers his refusal to confront reality.

Clark Clifford, the man who succeeded McNamara in 1968, was handpicked by President Lyndon B. Johnson because he was a renowned hawk. But ... [b]y the time he left office, he had refused to endorse a further military buildup, supported the halt in our bombing, and urged negotiation and gradual disengagement. Was Clifford a flip-flopper of historic proportions, or did he in fact demonstrate the courage of his convictions? ...

This isn't a time for stubbornness, nor is it a time for halfway solutions -- or warmed-over "new" solutions that our own experience tells us will only make the problem worse. The Iraq Study Group tells us that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." It joins the chorus of experts in and outside of Baghdad reminding us that there is no military solution to a political crisis. And yet, ... Washington is considering a "troop buildup" option, sending more troops into harm's way to referee a civil war.

We have already tried a trimmed-down version of the McCain plan of indefinitely increasing troop levels. We sent 15,000 more troops to Baghdad last summer, and today the escalating civil war is even worse. You could put 100,000 more troops in tomorrow and you're only going to add to the number of casualties until Iraqis sit down together at a bargaining table and compromise. The barrel of a gun can't answer the question of how you force Iraqi nationalism to trump sectarian loyalty.

The only hope for stability lies in pushing Iraqis to forge a sustainable political agreement on federalism, distributing oil revenues and neutralizing sectarian militias. And that will happen only if we set a deadline to redeploy our troops. ... But a deadline with no teeth is only lip service. How many times do we have to see that Iraqi politicians respond only to firm, specific deadlines -- a deadline to transfer authority, deadlines to hold two elections and a referendum, and a deadline to form a government -- before we understand that it's time to make it clear that we are leaving and that we will not sacrifice American lives for the sake of squabbling Iraqi politicians? ...

Conversation is not capitulation. Until recently, it was widely accepted that good foreign policy demands a willingness to seize opportunities and change policy as the facts change. That's neither flip-flopping nor rudderless diplomacy -- it's strength.

How else could we end up with the famous mantra that "only Nixon could go to China"? For decades, Richard Nixon built his reputation as a China hawk. In 1960, he took John Kennedy to task for being soft on China. He called isolating China a "moral position" that "flatly rejected cowardly expediency." Then, when China broke with the Soviet Union during his presidency, he saw an opportunity to weaken our enemies and make Americans safer. His 1972 visit to China was a major U.S. diplomatic victory in the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan was no shape-shifter, either, but after calling the Soviet Union the "evil empire," he met repeatedly with its leaders. ... History remembers that he backed tough words with tough decisions -- and, yes, that he changed course even as he remained true to his principles.

President Bush and all of us who grew up in the shadows of World War II remember Winston Churchill -- his grit, his daring, his resolve... Two years ago ..., I reread some of the many words from various addresses that made him famous. Something in one passage caught my eye. When Churchill urged, "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in," he added: "except to convictions of honour and good sense."

This is a time for such convictions.

    Posted by on Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 10:00 AM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (12)

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    » John Kerry on the “Surge”: When Resolve Turns Reckless from The Democratic Daily

    In the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post, John Kerry writes about the case for flip-flopping in a well thought out and presented case about the much discussed concept of the “surge.” Kerry makes it clear that Bush’s policies on Iraq have be... [Read More]

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