Worrisome Trend or Meaningless Blip?

The real-money odds of Saddam Hussein’s defeat, as determined in an online market established by an Irish betting shop, have drifted lower recently. The odds of his defeat by March 31 were last priced at only 27 percent, down 6 percent today; odds he will be out by June 30 were last at 73 percent, down about five points in the past few days.

Look at this as an options market. If the market’s expectations for the date of a U.S. attack on Iraq were converging on April or May, one would expect March odds of overthrowing Hussein to decrease but June odds to increase. By the same reasoning, market expectations of an attack in March or earlier would raise the odds for all expiration dates. And if there were increased uncertainty about the timing of our attack but no change in the expectation that we would overthrow Hussein (i.e., a situation analogous to higher implied volatility), one would expect the March odds to increase, and the June odds to increase or remain unchanged. Yet in the actual market both March and June odds are lower in the short term, which suggests either that there is less likelihood that we will attack than is popularly believed or that there is less likelihood that we will depose Hussein if we do attack. Neither possibility is attractive to those of us who want to purge Hussein ASAP.

The odds outlook can always change, however. In particular, a resumption of the long-term upward trend (click on “IRAQ.SADDAM.JUNE03” in this window to see a chart) in the June odds would suggest that the odds were converging on a post-March attack date, which would be encouraging. It would probably not be as good as attacking earlier, but it’s not so bad given diplomatic delays (Turkey) and what we can speculate about the pace of U.S. preparations.

Still, the real concern is whether U.S. involvement with the UN will substantially delay or ultimately prevent our attack. I doubt it, but it’s possible, and that’s why these short-term retracements in the odds make me nervous. I think the case for invasion is crystal clear, but it’s easy to forget that lots of people see things differently. I hope that the people who don’t want us to attack Iraq will change their minds, and that my blog-centric view hasn’t distorted my judgment about what’s likely to happen.

UPDATE: On the other hand, this article suggests that Iraqis are optimistic, which is a very good sign indeed. (Via Iain Murray)

Bend Over, Here It Comes Again

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft coauthored an op-ed (requires subscription) in last Thursday’s WSJ in which they called for another moral-equivalence imposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The principal features of the proposal should be familiar to us by now:

• Two independent states with boundaries approximating the pre-June 1967 borders with territorial adjustments that are the result of negotiation and not unilateral annexation. In effect, the Palestinian “right of return” to Israel would be exchanged for Israel’s relinquishing of the settlements, except on those territories exchanged by mutual agreement. • Arrangements for Jerusalem that accommodate two separate sovereignties while — insofar as possible — keeping the city physically undivided. • Relief and justice for Palestinian refugees in ways that do not threaten Israel’s demographic balance (e.g., a “right of return” applied to the new Palestinian state and generous international funding for repatriation, resettlement and compensation[)]. • A protection regime for sites deemed holy by Jews, Christians and Moslems. • Agreement on arrangements for internal and external security.

In other words, the Palestinians, having been offered recently a very similar deal by the Israelis, and having rejected that deal and started a war, which they lost, are now to be offered the same deal again. They are to pay no penalty for their bad judgment and bad faith.

Much of the rest of the column is delusional boilerplate that denies the obvious:

All previous efforts to end the violence and turn to a political process have failed because each side has maintained that the first step must be taken by the other. If the road map is not to encounter the same fate, the U.S. and its partners must insist on a 100% Palestinian Authority effort to end violence that is unconditional and independent of actions demanded of Israel. They must similarly insist on an unconditional cessation of Israeli settlement expansion (including so-called natural growth) that is independent of actions required of Palestinians. This parallelism is not to suggest moral equivalence. It is to recognize that no peace talks are possible if Palestinians fail to exert 100% effort to halt terrorism or if Israel continues to encroach on Palestinian lives and property.

To state that “this parallelism is not to suggest moral equivalence” is rich, since the obvious point of this statement was indeed to suggest a moral equivalence between those whose commit or sponsor murderous terror attacks and those who build settlements. Indeed, far from being a function of process or misunderstanding (“each side has maintained that the first step must be taken by the other”), the violence has been driven by the Palestinian leadership which has embraced terror as a political tool when it couldn’t get what it wanted by negotiation. Why should the Palestinians now be awarded a clean slate? And why should Israelis assent to a plan which from the beginning is so tilted against them? (They wouldn’t, which is why this deal would have to be imposed by the U.S. via threats and costly bribes.)

David Frum addressed these issues in his blog and wondered about the authors’ motives:

So: Brzezinski and Scowcroft are advocating that the U.S. embark on another probably doomed attempt to midwife a Palestinian state in order to win European, Arab, and Muslim support for an Iraq policy that Brzezinski and Scowcroft oppose. That’s illogical enough. But what elevates the illogic to almost postmodern levels is that the U.S. is in fact already winning the Arab and European support that Brzezinski and Scowcroft say it cannot win. Meanwhile, the countries that continue to oppose U.S. policy in Iraq – like France and Russia – do not even bother to cite the Palestinian issue as an excuse. I’m beginning to wonder whether for a certain type of foreign-policy expert, the “Middle East peace process” isn’t becoming a Pavlovian response: Ring the bell and they start demanding an Arafatistan. They themselves no longer remember why they do it. And they certainly cannot explain why anybody else should follow them.
Frum is right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that what drives Brzezinski and Scowcroft is so mysterious as he suggests (or maybe he is just being coy). What gives Brzezinski and Scowcroft away is their insistence on putting the Israeli-Palestinian fix in before we invade Iraq:
There is no national security reason for the U.S. to delay such a proposal. Indeed, there are important security reasons to spell out, without further delay, the broad shape of the peace agreement for which the U.S. intends to work. Arab countries and much of the Muslim world, as well as most European countries, see a direct link between their ability to be more forthcoming in supporting U.S. goals in Iraq and our commitment to working for a fair settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

This is odd, because Iraq supports the Arafat gang’s strategy of pressuring Israel via terror attacks, and because of course our adversaries want to reach agreements now, when they have more leverage than they will after any post-war realignment. Why should we accommodate them rather than wait until we have greater advantage? Any threat to the Iraqi regime undermines its support for Palestinian violence and encourages accommodation with Israel, which would be good for the U.S.

So why the rush to lock in an agreement? I think this is an example of what Lex had in mind in a recent magnum opus, when he wrote of the seemingly perverse reasoning by which our State Department comes to prefer apparently-stable tyrannies to “risky” democracy in the Middle East:

Why are we doing this? Why does the State Department want to preserve “stability” at the expense of any hope for freedom or progress for this “remote nation of twenty million people” we are about to liberate at the price of American and British blood? First, I suppose, bureaucratic inertia. The State Department is terrified of any change in the region because its institutional interest lies in preserving the personnel and regimes it has invested in and cultivated. The State Department’s franchise is access, knowing whom to call. If a brand new regime comes along, all that goes in the waste basket. The last thing these guys want is the House of Saud swept into the trash can [. . .]
Brzezinski and Scowcroft are sophisticated and public-spirited men. However, they are realists in the sense that Lex uses the term: they are capable of imagining how much worse things could always become, and so tend to favor incremental solutions that seem unlikely to lead to disaster if things go awry. But as Lex points out, the “realist” model can fail at historical inflection points where radical change may be less risky than tinkering on the margins. It looks like we are at such a point now.

Brzezinski and Scowcroft also probably have a great deal of time and effort invested in relationships, “access,” and intellectual models for understanding the Middle East as it is today. Like State Department bureaucrats, and consultants generally, they stand to lose if the old order is replaced by something radically different. It is not inconceivable that their op-ed is a trial balloon in the foreign-affairs bureaucracy’s effort to make its case against proponents of radical change. Did Colin Powell have a hand in its writing? Who knows, and it doesn’t matter. It’s more important that advocates of democracy and regime change realize that they are not going to be given a free ride on this topic and must continue to make their case forcefully and repeatedly.

Are you listening, W?

That Had To Hurt

The blockade that prevented NATO from helping Turkey to defend itself has finally been broken. The first reports were somewhat confusing, speaking of France having been shown the door. What actually happened is that the negotiations were moved to the defence planning committee where France has no seat and an unanimous vote is binding. That’s a lot smoother than France just being locked out of the decision-making process, if that can even be done to a member (I’m not that familiar with the procedural niceties of supranational organizations). This way an official insult to the French is avoided, but it still is a stinging diplomatic defeat. Even worse, de Gaulle once had taken France out of NATO as a gesture of national grandeur, and this has now come back to bite his successor Chirac. Talk about getting beaten with your own weapons (my apologies to Sylvain, but I can’t help gloating). Speaking of gloating: Reports claim that a compromise was worked out in the defence planning commitee, but that’s probably just supposed to help Schroeder and what’s-his-name from Belgium to save face. It’s much more likely that they simply didn’t have the guts to stand up to the others without Chirac at their side. Now, if only the Turkish government would find the guts to allow the deployment of American troops on Turkish territory…

The Consistency of General Powell

Most of America seems to be walking around only vaguely aware that their country is about to embark on a medium-sized but quite consequential war. The remainder, especially those who troll blogspace, scramble for each new crumb of news. And there is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes some eye-opening material resides in less current sources.

I just finished revisiting my copy of My American Journey, by Colin Powell. I found the following passages to be very timely. Please pardon a lengthy quote.

[W]hy didn’t we push on to Baghdad once we had Saddam on the run? Why didn’t we finish him off? Or, to put it another way, why didn’t we move the goalposts? What tends to be forgotten is that while the United States led the way, we were heading an international coalition carrying out a clearly defined U.N. mission. That mission was accomplished. The President … had promised the American people that Desert Storm would not become a Persian Gulf Vietnam, and he kept his promise.

Id. at 525.

From the geopolitical standpoint, the coalition, particularly the Arab states, never wanted Iraq invaded and dismembered. Before the fighting, I received a copy of a cable sent by Charles Freeman, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “For a range of reasons,” Freeman said, “we cannot pursue Iraq’s unconditional surrender and occupation by us. It is not in our interest to destroy Iraq or weaken it to the point that Iran and/or Syria are not constrained by it.” Wise words, Mr. Ambassador. It would not contribute to the stability we want in the Middle East to have Iraq fragmented into separate Sunni, Shia, and Kurd political entities. The only way to have avoided this outcome was to have undertaken a largely U.S. conquest and occupation of a remote nation of twenty million people. I don’t think that is what the American people signed up for.
Of course, we would have loved to see Saddam overthrown by his own people for the death and destruction he had brought down on them. But that did not happen. And the President’s demonizing of Saddam as the devil incarnate did not help the public understand why he was allowed to stay in power. It is naïve, however, to think that if Saddam had fallen, he would necessarily have been replaced by a Jeffersonian in some sort of desert democracy where people read the The Federalist Papers along with the Koran. Quite possibly we would have wound up with a Saddam by another name.

Id. at 526.

Much of what Powell has done in the last several months can be seen as an attempt to replicate the situation he faced in 1991. First, the desire to have a limited, defined, U.N.-mandated mission. Second, the desire to have a broad coalition, for the very purpose of limiting the possible scope of American aims and ambitions with regard to Iraq in the event of a war. Powell wants limited “goalposts” set so the United States does not get into something too big or too risky. Third, the focus on the “stability” concerns of the region’s Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia. Fourth, the dread of having to occupy and impose a government on Iraq. Note the rhetorical gimmick Powell employs here, the false dichotomy between Saddam and a Jeffersonian democracy. There were and are certainly better alternatives to Saddam’s regime short of some fantasy scenario. Note also the remarkable statement that Saddam “was allowed to stay in power”.

Worrisome recent articles indicate that the current State Department plan is to minimize the effect of any United States occupation of Iraq, to placate the Saudis. Kanan Makiya’s article is entitled “Our hopes betrayed”. Makiya asserts that the leaked State Department documents indicate that “The plan, as dictated to the Iraqi opposition in Ankara last week by a United States-led delegation, further envisages the appointment by the US of an unknown number of Iraqi quislings palatable to the Arab countries of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia as a council of advisers to this military government. ” In other words, we are planning to leave much of the Baath party apparatus, the guys who run the torture chambers, in place in a post-conquest Iraq for the purpose of appeasing the Sunni leadership of the Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. To quote General Powell, “I don’t think that is what the American people signed up for.” How deeply General Powell has been involved in this planning, or even how true these rumors are, cannot at yet be known. But, let’s assume arguendo that these rumors are basically true.

Why are we doing this? Why does the State Department want to preserve “stability” at the expense of any hope for freedom or progress for this “remote nation of twenty million people” we are about to liberate at the price of American and British blood? First, I suppose, bureaucratic inertia. The State Department is terrified of any change in the region because its institutional interest lies in preserving the personnel and regimes it has invested in and cultivated. The State Department’s franchise is access, knowing whom to call. If a brand new regime comes along, all that goes in the waste basket. The last thing these guys want is the House of Saud swept into the trash can. Furthermore, more controversially, the State Department has been corrupted by Saudi bribe money. Daniel Pipes has been writing about this, very plausibly. ( This will be full text when the Spring Issue is published.)

On the same point, this article is also disturbing. It notes that:

The Pentagon and the vice-president Dick Cheney are broadly in favour of introducing Western-style democracy to Iraq but the State Department under Colin Powell and the CIA believe it could have a destabilising influence on the region.
Iraq’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are also vehemently opposed to any federal arrangement that gives power to Iraq’s Kurds or Shiites.

As General Powell noted in his memoir, after the U.S. and Iraq had ceased fighting:

For a moment, it looked as if the war might flare up again. In March, the Iraqi Shiites in the south rose up in arms to demand more recognition from Baghdad. Saddam responded by sending in his troops to suppress the uprising. In the north, the Kurds tried to shake off the Iraqi yoke. Neither revolt had a chance. Nor, frankly, was their success a goal of our policy. President Bush’s rhetoric urging the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, however may have given encouragement to the rebels. But our practical intention was to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to an Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States.

American Journey at 530-31 (emphasis added).

Same thing, different decade. The freedom of any of the people of Iraq “frankly, was not a goal of our policy” in 1991. Nor, apparently, for some in the Bush administration, is it a goal now. For those who value stability above all else, it is necessary to prevent the majority Shiites or the Kurds from having any autonomy, even within a unitary Iraq, since we must placate the Turks and Saudis. To keep these communities in a unitary Iraq and subject to a Sunni minority, our State Department apparently believes that it must maintain or create an authoritarian state in Iraq to enforce discipline. In other words, the United States, to satisfy the State Department and certain of our so-called allies in the region, must be complicit in the creation of a new despotism. In General Powell’s words, “a Saddam by another name”.

Fortunately, we have another ally, not in the region, who is a real ally — Britain or, at least, its Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. Mr. Blair’s recent, brilliant speech convinced, grudgingly, various center-left acquaintances of mine (including, incredibly, my wife!) that the war is just and necessary. The main focus of Blair’s case, made to a Labor Party audience, was the necessity of ending Saddam’s tyranny and bringing a better life to the Iraqi people. I am sure that Blair is sincere. But that aside, what he has done is reached out to a very significant center-left/liberal constituency which can be swayed by Wilsonian/Gladstonian appeals. This is the same liberal-hawk community which supported the wars against Serbia. They did so because they believe in fighting against tyranny and spreading liberal values, even at gunpoint. (Of course, President Bush made similar arguments, with evident sincerity, in his State of the Union Address. However, Mr. Blair, as a man of the Left has credibility with this constituency which Bush does not and cannot have.) If Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are serious about the moral dimension of this cause, the liberal internationalist, nation-building dimension, and I think they are, they had better act soon to thwart the short-sighted purported “realism” of the United States State Department.

I have left a question hanging which is implicit in much of the foregoing: Is Powell a villain?

I have to say he is not. The most important thing to understand about Powell is that his whole career has been shaped by Vietnam. The Gulf War was, in this analysis, consciously shaped by him to be the exact opposite of Vietnam. It was a coalition effort, with limited aims, which was executed swiftly, with few lives lost, with no nation building involved, with no long occupation or long-term foreign placement of United States troops, and wound up and ended quickly and successfully, allowing us to “declare victory and come home.” Powell is also a “realist” with a pessimistic and tragic cast of mind. The world is full of dangers, and things could always be much, much worse. Tinkering with something stable and reliable, like the Saudi regime, even if it is not what we’d like it to be, is foolhardy . Hard decisions have to be made, and utopian fantasies have no place. Preserving Iraq is a way of protecting the Gulf oil from the Iranians, for example. It is a choice made from a small set of alternatives, all bad. Most of all, he is a soldier, for whom sending people out to war, to risk life and limb in the service of do-goodery is a prescription for lots of dead soldiers, limitless commitments, and frustrated hopes — Vietnam all over again. Powell is a conservative in this strict and narrow sense.

I find Powell’s viewpoint appealing. I am close to it myself. We live in a fallen world scarred by original sin. Most good intentions lead to Hell, or its suburbs. Big, open ended political projects, especially those requiring the use of force, are almost always doomed.

Nonetheless, there are moments when the existing template won’t do. When major steps need to be taken because the world we know, or parts of it, are disintegrating. We can try to prevent the disintegration, or channel it and begin building a more stable, successor structure. The Middle Eastern order arose from the collapse of Ottoman power at the end of World War I. It has always been a ramshackle affair. (See David Fromkin’s brilliant book A Peace to End All Peace.) The apparent stability of the existing regimes in the region rests on their ongoing repression and little more. We can try to hold that lid on the pot forever, or begin pushing the region toward a more long-term stable form of governance, more liberal and democratic, more free. Is this risky? Yes. Is remaining the ally and supporter of the tyrannies of the region, in perpetuity, risky? Yes, very much so, more so. In fact, the ongoing tyranny in the Arab world, supported by the United States in the name of “stability”, more than anything else was the source of the September 11 attacks. (See the brilliant article by Michael Doran, “Somebody Else’s Civil War”. Also, as an antidote to the notion that the Palestinian problem is the root cause of the animus against the United States in the region, see this essay, “Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy” also by Michael Scott Doran). The truest realism for the current situation is a substantial commitment to changing the region in a positive way, while we can still influence events. In other words, we need to stop fearing instability as if it were the ultimate evil. (See the excellent article by Ralph Peters, “Stability, America’s Enemy”.) In any case, instability is not something we can stop. The region is unstable, and is going to change radically, because the existing structure is rotten and doomed.

These moments of major change occur infrequently, but they occur. The American founding was one such moment. The American Civil War and Reconstruction was another. The European occupation of the Mideast after World War I was another. The rise of Hitler and the rearmament of Germany, and the foreign response to it, was another. The British withdrawal from India and the partition was another. The early Cold War and the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO was another such pivotal moment. Some of the moments were handled well, others badly, some worked out favorably, others disastrously. Sometimes it wasn’t clear at the time, at least at first, that anything major was going on. It took wise and far-seeing leaders to discern that major events were in the offing, requiring novel thinking. At such times “business as usual” is anything but the prudent course.

September 11 signaled clearly and unmistakably that the existing order in the Muslim world is not only not working but is a major and growing threat to the United States. A major change in how business is done is going to happen in the Muslim world. We can help to channel and direct it, or we can cling to the past and be dragged along. Reimposing tyranny on Iraq in the interests of a phantom “stability” and to placate regimes which are part of the problem would be a step in the wrong direction. We will need to take the risk that our values and institutions have application elsewhere, that they do indeed reflect universal aspirations, as the Declaration of Independence claimed. In fact, spreading these values is now an explicit policy goal, according to the National Security Strategy of the United States, which says “In pursuit of our goals, our first imperative is to clarify what we stand for: the United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them.” It goes on to say that “America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property.” Which is all pretty universalist.

So, to conclude, General Powell is not a villain. He is a smart and serious man, a well-intentioned public servant, a man who hates to use force but is willing to do so if necessary, a cautious man who has had to look parents of dead soldiers in the eye. But, if he supports these plans to maintain an authoritarian regime in Iraq, he is failing to see the meaning of the moment in which he has been called to great office, and he is deeply mistaken about what is good for America, for the people of Iraq, and the world.