A Lack of National Debate


Referee the steel-cage death match between the Israelis and Palestinians, and then we’ll talk

The latest mass-media hysteria promoted by hack journalists is that the election is so close that the presidential debates are make-or-break. If that’s the case—if people are going to make up their minds based on a TV miniseries—we’re broken. A better idea would be to read up on what Tony Cordesman has to say about the Middle East. More on him in a minute. But keep one point in mind when you watch the first Bush-Kerry TV show tonight: It’s not a debate.

One of the most concise statements of this view comes from Kathy Gill, a senior lecturer in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication. Courtesy of the basic site comes her assessment:

The 2004 presidential debates are misnamed: Each candidate “answers” a question in a two-minute soundbite; this is not “debating” an issue, as any high school debate team member can attest. It is a made-for-TV battle of spin, and the candidate wins who has the best marketing people on staff (who develop memorable “bites” on each issue).

Now about this Cordesman fellow. You may have seen him on ABC News as a military analyst or run across his name in one of Paul Krugman‘s op-ed pieces in The New York Times. In a September 24 column, “Let’s Get Real,” re-posted here, Krugman wrote:

In an analysis titled Inexcusable Failure, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies details how the U.S. “failed to treat the Iraqis as partners in the counter-insurgency effort.” U.S. officials, he declares, are “guilty of a gross military, administrative and moral failure.”

A former adviser to Senator John McCain, Cordesman is often that blunt. Read Inexcusable Failure for yourself. He’s an antidote to the neocon job that’s been foisted upon the American people.

Cordesman is also funny, at least in a mordant way. Back in 1996, in a paper ominously titled Terrorism and the Threat From Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East, he warned about “totalitarian solutionists” in the West who would be too heavy-handed in responding to terrorism. While acknowledging that “even paranoids face real terrorist threats,” he wrote:

This terrorizing approach to terrorism may well have begun with Aesop‘s fable about the “boy who cried wolf”—the boy being the world’s first counterterrorist. The eventual triumph of the wolf may also have led to the first counterterrorism conspiracy theorist. There are equally strong indications that many writers about terrorism trace their intellectual roots to the story of Chicken Little, the first counterterrorism expert to turn a minor incident into an announcement that the sky was falling.

Today, Cordesman’s still plugging away at the centrist CSIS. This is a guy who’s been going to Iraq for 30 years, and he’s written some scary shit about Saddam Hussein‘s arsenal. But in light of what he’s recently written and said about the Middle East, he’s probably got a fatwa on him from fanatics of all three of the religions battling for land over there.

Earlier this month, at the 13th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in D.C. (you’re right; it was hardly covered at all), Cordesman did what only fanatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals usually do: He mixed religion with politics. But in his case, he took extremists of all stripes to task. In a speech titled “Beyond Anger and Counterterrorism: A New Grand Strategy for U.S. and Arab Relations,” he said:

The actions of Osama bin Laden and other Islamic extremists have exposed a fundamental failure to bridge the ideological and cultural gaps between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The end result is a common threat in forms of Islamic extremism that cannot tolerate other interpretations of Islam, much less Judaism and Christianity.

It is a threat in forms of Christianity that see all non-Christians as damned, and Jews simply as a convenient mechanism to trigger the Second Coming.

It is a threat in Israeli extremist statements that effectively dehumanize Palestinians and reject the legitimacy of Islam. It is a threat in the form of statements in the Arab world that go from anger against Israel’s political and military actions to attacks on all Jews and Judaism.

Governments, said Cordesman, “have reacted largely by treating the symptoms and not the disease.” He added:

Counterterrorism is essential to deal with the most obvious and damaging symptoms, but it cannot deal with the underlying causes. Military force is sometimes necessary. However, it is now all too clear in Iraq that it can create as many—or more—problems than it solves.

His message to everybody: Take off the polarizing lenses and stop blustering.

Citing a major August poll taken in predominantly Muslim countries by the Pew Research Center, Cordesman noted that “anger toward the United States remains pervasive,” that “Osama bin Laden is viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65%), Jordan (55%) and Morocco (45%),” and that even in Turkey, “where bin Laden is highly unpopular, as many as 31% say that suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners” are considered justifiable. Cordesman continued:

There are many other surveys that deliver the same message, just as there are many surveys of U.S. and Western opinion that reflect anger against terrorism, and hostility toward Islam and the Arab world.

U.S. and Arab relations are where they are today for many reasons, but one of them is that the Western and Islamic worlds have previously defined “tolerance” in terms of mutual ignorance, and in terms of governmental indifference at the ideological, political, and cultural level.

Empty U.S. calls for instant, region-wide democracy and political reform are producing a dangerous counterreaction in much of the Arab world. A Western focus on counterterrorism—without a balancing focus on creating bridges between the West and Middle East—is often breeding extremism rather than defeating it.

Scholars like Columbia prof Mahmoud Mamdani, who straddles both the West and the “developing world,” often take such global, non-jingoistic outlooks. (See my short piece on Mamdani.) This kind of stuff usually doesn’t emanate from Western military analysts. Not that Cordesman would necessarily agree with Mamdani about that much. But Cordesman warned the Arab-U.S. policymakers of the long-term consequences of the current mentality of Crusader vs. Saracen:

Unlike today’s crises and conflicts, these forces will play out over decades. They cannot be dealt with simply by attacking today’s terrorists and extremists; they cannot be dealt with by pretending religion is not an issue, and that tolerance can be based on indifference or ignorance. …

History has shown the cost if governments do not act or are passive in dealing with challenges this severe: Two thousand years of mindless anti-Semitism in the West culminated in the Holocaust. A heritage of racism in the United States only began to be openly and frankly addressed once the Supreme Court took judicial action nearly a century after the Civil War. Conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo took the form of ethnic cleansing based on age-old and half-forgotten divisions between Christians and Muslims.

Among his solutions is one that’s surely at odds with the aims of the current neocon zealots infesting the Pentagon, White House, and Department of Justice:

A … comprehensive review is needed of counterterrorism policies that looks beyond a narrow focus on defeating terrorists and seeks to ensure that necessary action to defeat terrorism does not create unnecessary anger and hostility, detain or arrest the innocent, or fail to compensate those who are unfairly arrested. Western policies toward immigration must emphasize tolerance and equality for Arab and Islamic immigrants, not just economic need and security.

Finally, but actually as soon as possible, there has to be some sort of movement toward settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli death dance. He hurls a pox on both their houses, saying, “There is absolutely nothing to be gained from waiting for two inadequate governments to bludgeon each other into peace.” This is tricky, he says, because “a common solution cannot be imposed by force, and the U.S. and Arab world will never agree on all the details of a final settlement.”

But he contends that Western governments must join with the Arab world to step into that morass to “define a final settlement.” Word to the Palestinians: “Reject terrorism.” Word to the Israelis: “Roll back settlements in both the Gaza and the West Bank.”

Richard Clarke has already pointed out the incompetence and ignorance of the pre–9-11 early daze of the Bush administration. Well, Cordesman did his part too, in trying to warn Congress about “Iraq and America’s Foreign Policy Crisis in the Middle East.” In Cordesman’s testimony on March 1, 2001, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he blasted the Clinton administration for its Middle East failures, but he laid out a rational policy, not the one that Crusader Bush has followed. No peacenik, Cordesman was all for “military containment” of Saddam and “long-term covert operations” against him, even the threat of “decisive force.” But everyone in D.C. knew the Bush administration’s neocons were already gung ho about Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress as future “liberators” of Iraq, and Cordesman told the senators:

The Bush Administration threatens to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton administration and Congress, and go on backing weak and unpopular elements of the Iraqi opposition like the Iraqi National Congress. These movements have no meaningful support from any friendly government in the region, and they have no military potential beyond dragging the U.S. into a “Bay of Kuwait” or “Bay of Kurdistan” disaster.

The Turks fear them as a way of dividing Iraq and creating a Kurdistan, and the Arabs fear them as a way of bringing Iraq under Shiite control and/or Iranian influence. Worse, they are no substitute for a major covert effort to overthrow Saddam from within, and overt U.S. funding of such movements tends to label the Iraqi opposition as U.S.-sponsored traitors. We need to understand that containing Iraq is far more important than legislating the funding of a forlorn hope.

Of course, Cordesman had no way of knowing that planes would smack into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and that the Bush regime would use that as an excuse to invade Iraq. But he had an idea that if they pinned their hopes on schnooks like Chalabi, they would fuck it up.